Notes Toward a Candid Conversation About Genocide in Canada


AS THE TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION Commission of Canada hosts its national event this week, in Edmonton, the topic of genocide is once again surfacing. Usually the topic is posed as a question: is Canada “guilty of genocide”? Over the years, I’ve had many conversations that began with this question, and I’ve done a fair amount of reading and thinking. Here are my notes toward an informed conversation about Canada and genocide.

We begin with terminology. My foremost concern is with careful, deliberate and precise usages of language. It’s the academic in me. I wonder if the same term could be usefully and helpfully applied to the organized slaughter of Armenians by Ottoman Turks, to the large-scale looting and murder of Jews by Nazified Germans, to the Republika Srpska’s “ethnic cleansing” of Bosnian Croats and Muslims, to Stalin’s famine extermination of ethnic Ukrainians, to the Hutu Power massacre of Tutsis, and to the policy of forced assimilation of indigenous peoples in Canada.

By “useful and helpful” I mean only to wonder if a full, accurate and proper understanding of disparate events can be arrived at through application of a common label. The need of such a label was first felt by the lawyer Raphael Lemkin in relation to the Armenian event, as well as the later Simele massacre, the former now considered by some to be the first modern instance of genocide. (The Herero and Namaqua genocides, carried out by German settlers, preceded this by a decade and are also credible candidates for this distinction.) Lemkin developed his thinking further, in his 1943 work Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, forging the term genocide from a Greek noun γένος – meaning a kind, stock or species – and a Latin verb caedere, to kill.

Lemkin’s language and concepts informed the work of the Nuremberg Trials as well as the United Nations’ 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, also known as the Genocide Convention. As broad as the UN’s genocide language may appear to some, Lemkin’s was broader, comprising not only physical harms but also “disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups” as well as “the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health [and] dignity” of the victims. The UN, in contrast, defines genocide as:

– Killing members of the group;
– Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
– Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
– Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
– Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Even the narrower UN definition may be argued as applying to Canada – “forcibly transferring children of the group to another group” is the most crisp summary of the Indian residential school and child welfare systems I’ve yet to encounter – and in any case it is the Genocide Convention which is the internationally recognized legal definition and the formulation most have in mind. If Canada is ever deemed guilty of attempted genocide, it will be the UN’s language which will be applied.

The case of Canada is unique in many respects. It begins in roughly the 1830s, when the rivalry of competing empires on the North American continent was settled by the War of 1812 and the Treaty of Ghent. The French, British and Americans would no longer fight one another for dominance in the Americas, and would instead turn their attention elsewhere. That elsewhere was, for the British and Americans, the vast resources of the continent itself. The Americans looked west and south rather than north, and the French and English moved gradually, if not inevitably, toward reform, responsible government and confederation. The age of continental empire building was underway.

In the days of French-British-American rivalry, Indians were valuable partners and allies in war. Once the fighting subsided, Indians were no longer of strategic utility. In the 1830s settlers on both sides of the Yankee-Loyalist border put their minds to the Indian problem. That problem is quite easy to describe: the only thing in the way of the wholesale appropriation of valuable territory was living, breathing Indians. Solving it would turn out to be anything but easy.

The Americans and British split over the application of physical violence. The British Loyalists felt that Yankee massacres of Indians were barbarous, immoral and beneath the dignity of an English gentleman. The Americans, for their part, discovered what the Nazis would later learn from their own efforts, that it’s incredibly difficult to exterminate a category of human beings. The amount of force required is enormous, and whether you are using bullets or gas, vast quantities are necessary and at considerable expense.

Rare is the soldier who can kill dozens or even hundreds of women and children, day upon day, and not succumb to overwhelming emotional distress. The Nazi regime found it necessary to keep their designated murderers in an ample supply of alcohol and narcotics. Perks of all kinds had to be supplied, and even then many simply lost their nerve. The machinery of mass murder broke down or managed to kill only a fraction of the targeted group. The Americans killed a great many indigenous people, but at a cost that could not be sustained.

The decision of the British to take another route was not only or even principally moral in character: it was the outcome of sober economic and practical calculations which weighed, for instance, the cost to kill an Indian against the cost to place him in an assimilationist Indian residential school. In both instances the desired and anticipated outcome was the same, that over time there would be no more Indians and hence no more Indian problems. Both the Americans and the British wanted the land and its resources, and their disagreement was therefore over means and not ends.

But surely, some will say, it’s morally better to assimilate a group rather than to put bullets into their skulls. And in Canada, this is precisely the tack that the arguments against the charge of genocide have taken. Canada is held forth as the friendly and nice version of colonization, and many are the Canadians who are quite incapable of conceiving the acts of their forefathers as anything but well-intentioned.

Should the word genocide force us to lump Duncan Campbell Scott with Heinrich Himmler, when any reasonable person can see at a glance that there are distinctions to be made? And, on the other side of that question, what are we to do with the obvious connection – for Himmler presided over the Final Solution, a phrase first coined by Canada’s top Indian Affairs bureaucrat:

It is readily acknowledged that Indian children lose their natural resistance to illness by habituating so closely in the residential schools, and that they die at a much higher rate than in their villages. But this alone does not justify a change in the policy of this Department, which is geared towards a final solution of our Indian Problem.

The above is Duncan Campbell Scott’s icy response to Dr. P. H. Bryce, the Indian Affairs Chief Medical Inspector who in 1907 reported the unpleasant fact that Indian children were dying at very high rates of preventable diseases in the residential schools. Scott’s view was that, as the government was trying to get rid of them anyway, death rates could hardly be regarded as a matter of special concern.

I find that Canadians don’t as a general rule appreciate having the symmetry of Canadian and Nazi policies brought to their attention, but the symmetry exists, as do the distinctions. In 1880 you would have had a difficult time finding a Canadian government official who believed there would be Indians living on Canadian soil in the year 1920. Everything that government people were doing in relation to the Indian problem was designed to ensure that Indians would be a creature of the past. Eventually 1920 arrived, and there were still Indians. In that year Duncan Campbell Scott wrote that “I want to get rid of the Indian problem. […] Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian Question and no Indian Department.”

I refer so often to Scott because, as both a published poet and a senior federal bureaucrat, he understood government policy and had the ability to describe it in clear, arresting language. Scott doesn’t equivocate or apologize: he comes right out and says We want to be rid of the Indian. But he also makes it clear that it’s to be done in a planned way, by forcing the indigenous people to take up the habits, disposition, values, practices and customs of their occupiers. So the question Canadians must confront is this: is a relentless attrition campaign of forcible assimilation and dispossession a morally defensible project, and by what better name might it be called? Considered as a historical arc, from conception to fait accompli, how do you suppose this differs from genocide from the point of view of its targeted group – who may be alive, but are also in many cases severed from their families, communities and identities? And given that this not-yet-realized campaign is now approaching its bicentenary, how long shall it continue, and at what costs?

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