Call it genocide
“It is time to call it as it is”: these are words from a supplementary report on genocide, attached to the final report the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG). To some, the National Inquiry’s conclusion – an informal indictment of the state of Canada for acts of genocide against the Indigenous people of the land – was shocking and disturbing. To others, as the report points out – namely Indigenous activists and scholars – it was simply a conclusion that many have been asking Canada to recognize for years.
The report says that “genocidal acts,” which are explained and defined in detail at the report’s beginning, “permeate the thousands of testimonies heard by the National Inquiry in the course of its mandate” (page 17). These acts include what the report calls “continuous [Canadian] policies” of sterilization, the over-apprehension of children into colonial foster care, lack of police protection, biological warfare and starvation by colonial troops, and abuse at residential schools. This residential school abuse included medical experimentation, which unnecessarily exposed Indigenous children to disease and led to mortality rates at the schools that ran from 30 to 60 per cent.
Not only are these appalling cruelties a part of Canada’s history, but according to the aational inquiry they also continue today with their legacies in Canada’s police violence and under-service to Indigenous communities and their needs.
Perhaps predictably, then, the Canadian government and those who wish to see it as a benevolent, accepting force have voiced considerable pushback to this report. Multiple op-eds have been published arguing that a charge of genocide against Canada does not hold water given the greater severity of other genocides such as the Rwandan genocide and the Holocaust.
Andrew Scheer of Alberta’s conservative party publicly posited that MMIWG was “its own thing,” and shouldn’t be considered genocide as “the ramifications of [the term] are very profound.” Prime Minister Trudeau in his first response to the report would not use the word “genocide,” but then in a later address said that he “accepted the report” and that we should focus on “moving forward” rather than getting caught up in discussion of the weight of the G word.
Trudeau was wrong to think that Canada or white settlers have a place to say whether it’s time to move forward here, but he is right that arguing about whether this word was used correctly helps no one. In the first place, the national inquiry already consulted lawyers and experts on international law while writing the supplementary genocide report, and they drew their analysis from similarities to previous genocides (for example, the way sexual abuse during the Rwandan genocide played a serious role in disturbing the social health of Tutsi communities – and how staggering rates of sexual assault are doing that now for Indigenous communities).
The charge of genocide appeals to international law and demands a cessation to Canada’s acts and omissions that threaten Indigenous people. It does this because appealing to Canada does not work–there have already been four national inquiries before this one (in 1991, 1996, 2001 and 2005), and Canada has still not shown sufficient active commitment.
It is also relevant to note that when the concept of genocide was first coined by Raphael Lemkin, he wanted to include a category of “social genocide” in addition to the physical and biological categories recognized today. This category met pushback from many colonial nations at the time, including Canada, likely because it was apparent that it would apply to what Indigenous people experienced at that time. Indigenous voices were not consulted while this term was legalized, and social genocide failed to make it into international law. While the national inquiry argues that international law still covers genocide as it pertains to Canada, the inquirers are already trying to negotiate with laws that actively excluded them for colonizers’ own interests.
The bottom line here is that the report clearly lays out why the term genocide is used, cites several important sources to support this, and is also supported by direct testimony from thousands of Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQIA+ people. On what basis do white columnists write their rebuttals to this as if charging a state with genocide is a power grab, instead of a desperate call for acknowledgement?
Why do we who benefit from colonialism and its violence put up our defences as soon as we hear the word genocide, or when in America the term “concentration camps” is used to describe the ICE detention centres where children have died due to the inhumane conditions? We have certain sensibilities to protect, maybe, or we are hesitant to be honest about what side of a wave of hatred we are standing on. This report contained truths and it is long past time to address them as truths – we plainly can’t rely on the state of Canada to actively and materially own up to its legacy.
We all have a responsibility to offer our support to those who face institutional violence, but as a Jewish person I feel particularly responsible for naming evil and being a dissident voice against it. In the United States, I feel hopeful to be watching a steady movement of American Jews who are passionately and fiercely speaking out against ICE and talking back to those who derail migrant advocates by tastelessly invoking the Holocaust.
The use of the term concentration camp,”much like the term Canadian genocide, is supported by scholars who specialize in what concentration camps are and don’t use the term lightly. This term is invoked not for shock value, but to truly and accurately describe the fascism that is taking hold in North America. Despite extensive offering of knowledge, though, many prefer to look away from the reality of ICE by claiming that calling a cage a cage somehow denies the existence of a crueler history. But the truth is, it really is that bad, and if we don’t personally feel that fear it is likely because of our ability to live separately from it.
If we want to really respond to the National Inquiry’s report, we can take a page from the strategy guides of those demonstrating in front of ICE detention centres, actively disrupting their operations, as well as those in Quebec who recently worked to prevent a migrant detention centre from being built in Laval.
We can offer our support directly to Indigenous activists and keep our eyes open for where they need us, and we can start noticing that the image Canada presents for itself is in many ways a way to keep people from looking behind the curtain. “It is time to call it as it is,” and time to respond in proportion to reality, thinking about where our loyalties lie and how we can put our skills to urgent use.