Are people spending too much time talking about the meaning of genocide?
No. Canadian society needed to be shocked out of complacency about ongoing structural violence against Indigenous peoples, as well as the belief that we get a free pass on human rights issues.
The shock and shame of the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation report and its finding of cultural genocide has produced some results. But only 10 of the 94 Calls to Action have been fully implemented based on CBC’s tracking, and we don’t have a coherent official monitoring mechanism in place.
Genocide is the centrepiece of the report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, which argues that colonial violence remains ongoing, not just a “sad chapter” or some legacy of the past. Its 231 Calls to Justice reflect the need to stop genocide in the present and prevent it in the future through a range of policy and process changes. Genocide is woven through the report and is central to its methodology and conclusions.
Genocide has both legalist and pluralist forms. The legalist approach is based on the way genocide is defined in international and domestic law, with the United Nations Genocide Convention of 1948 at the centre. Pluralist refers to the ways that activists, academics and others define genocide beyond the fairly narrow confines of the convention.
The UN convention was the result of compromise between states, many of which were committing forms of genocide against Indigenous peoples at the time. Canada was one of these countries.
The argument that genocide must be only about mass killings goes back to the 1940s, but it is unconvincing. If that was the only appropriate definition, then the convention would have simply stated this. Raphael Lemkin, who created the term in 1944, never saw genocide as meaning only mass killing. He said — and the inquiry reflected — that genocide is a coordinated plan of actions, not simply one kind of action.
The inquiry report reflects a pluralist position. It does not rigidly align the crimes of the state with the genocide convention. It also describes the convention as too narrow to encompass the composite nature of the many acts that comprise a larger, slower moving, colonial genocide. The inquiry may have understood that the convention was designed in part for prevention of rapidly moving genocides. But colonialism isn’t quick. It is a much slower form of genocide, but no less dangerous.
As the inquiry’s genocide supplement states: “Colonialism is a unique form of violence that does not fit easily in the international legal definition of the crime of genocide. The way in which the legal requirements have been developed and applied to establish individual responsibility, rather than state responsibility, partly explains why the traditional, legal understanding of genocide has often been considered incompatible with colonial genocide.”
The report notes that the Holocaust model of genocide is only one “prototype of genocide” and does not capture the “diverse, lived experiences” of Indigenous peoples.
The inquiry’s finding of genocide was unprecedented in Canada but is not unique. Australia’s Bringing Them Home Report in 1997 argued that genocide had been committed against Indigenous peoples. The Australian commission looked into the forced transfer of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples from their families and communities. It took the legal definition of genocide and modified it in important ways. It looked at how the intent to commit genocide could be inferred both from direct government actions, but also from its inaction when faced with the foreseeable implications of its policies. The report also recognized that even general laws to which everyone was subject could be discriminatorily applied. It recognized that laws allowing for the removal of children from their families were far more targeted towards Aboriginal families.
Inquiries like this can make legal and policy recommendations, including developing the basis for a definition of colonial genocide, which can form part of Canada’s domestic criminal law.
Last week’s inquiry report was only the second time genocide has been concluded in an official report in a settler state, and this is the first time a sitting prime minister has acknowledged genocide within their own country.
The debate that followed was predictable. There is little original from those rebutting the genocide charges. The arguments are that genocide should equal mass murder only, that genocide must be intended by state actors, and that using the term too often cheapens and dilutes its significance. This debate serves only to deflect the issues at the core. There is no doubt that Indigenous peoples have been and continue to be subjected to systems and structures that marginalize them and subject them to extreme violence.
As recognition of mass structural violence against Indigenous peoples broadens, the concept can help leverage action on the Calls to Justice. The cultural genocide argument of the Truth and Reconciliation report shocked the world in 2015, with serious harm to Canada’s reputation. The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls commission builds on the TRC’s work and brings increased global attention to the Indigenous human rights situation in Canada.
The Organization of American States, of which Canada is a member, was quick to hold Canada accountable, highlighting the importance of respect for Indigenous human rights in the Americas. Luis Almagro, Secretary General of the OAS, sent a letter to Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland asking her to form a group of experts to examine the genocide against Indigenous women and girls in Canada.
It is now time to focus on actions. We have 94 Calls to Action from the TRC to work on and now 231 more Calls to Justice coming from the inquiry. A pressing issue, at this moment, is for the Senate to pass Bill C-262, which harmonizes Canadian laws with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, mandates a national action plan and establishes an annual reporting mechanism. These are all provisions that will help stop the genocide and work towards improving the lives of Indigenous women and Indigenous nations.