Language matters more than anything other than bodily experience in how we understand the world. As someone a little too grammarian at times, I have to admit that language changes, even for the better, and along with it our understanding. We’re starting to accept, after years of seeing the term “climate crisis” in environmental literature, that it’s a more accurate term than the more neutral “climate change.” And we might even be on the verge of a change of political climate too, where recognizing the climate crisis is happening at the same time as recognizing the ongoing crisis of Indigenous peoples in Canada.
A couple of weeks ago, the historic report from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls started to generate story after story in the news, mainly in response to the report’s claim that Canada is responsible for genocide against Indigenous peoples. It’s this language, “genocide,” that I’ve been thinking about as a professor of English lately. But I’ll avoid the usual etymology of “geno” and “cide” and skip right to the debate.
Some argue that genocide is unique—uniquely the worst human behaviour, the murder of great numbers in a short time—and so the use of the term needs to be carefully controlled. Former general Romeo Dallaire, who served the United Nations during the genocide in Rwanda, and the respected Liberal politician Irwin Cotler, who has in mind the Holocaust, are both reluctant to expand the use of the word. After all, Indigenous peoples in Canada were not systematically and rapidly murdered in the millions. Conservative leader Andrew Sheer agreed, calling the situation of Indigenous peoples in Canada “its own thing.”
I agree too that the genocides of Rwanda and the Holocaust are special—absolutely horrific and desperately to be avoided and stopped whenever possible. But genocide is related to murder, and, on a smaller scale, we already seem comfortable in using the word “murder” to describe various acts. Although Wikipedia informs me that manslaughter is not technically murder, it is a willingness to harm someone that unintentionally becomes fatal, so it is a homicide. More strictly, Canada separates murder into second-degree murder (where the intent was to kill and developed rapidly in the heat of the moment) and first-degree murder (where the murder was planned in cold blood). We also regularly use the term “mass murder” to describe first-degree murders of many people at once. So, why can’t we use the word “genocide” with the same nuance as with “murder,” simply by qualifying it by degree?
In the case of the Indigenous peoples in North America, the colonists and their imperial governments have enacted genocide all along the spectrum. The Indian Wars in the United States were at times wars of eradication, and various massacres and other deadly tactics were perpetrated to kill large numbers of people.
Newfoundland’s Beothuk people were driven to starvation and were sometimes murdered by colonists, its last surviving person, Shawnadithit, dying in 1829 in St. John’s—though Mi’kmaq oral tradition and some scientific studies suggest that the Beothuk might have integrated into other Indigenous societies from the mainland. But the fact is that there is no self-identifying Beothuk community left anywhere, as a direct result of two centuries of colonization (at the time) and the attendant desire for land and resources. That seems to be genocide.
Sometimes, the idea of “killing” was symbolic, but it was hardly any better. The doctrine of “killing the Indian in the child,” which is sometimes attributed to Canadian residential-school planner Duncan Campbell Scott but may have started as a phrase from an American military officer, is a doctrine of destroying a cultural identity. And, in fact, some criteria of genocide according to the United Nations are dependent not only on one’s body but also on one’s cultural identity.
According to the UN’s definition, Canada did cause genocide. Although the first two are so general that they need more details of intention and scope, here are the UN’s criteria as reported recently, with examples from Canadian history:
But the effects were more than symbolic. In residential schools, at least 7,000 children, and probably many more, died prematurely. And then there was the Sixties Scoop, a related policy of using social workers to separate Indigenous children from their parents or guardians because of the harm being done to the children. However well-intentioned you think these social workers and schoolteachers were, these policies were a huge blind spot, because they masked the colonial ideology of killing the Indian in the child—of destroying a cultural identity.
If the end result of such a system is such despair that Indigenous youth don’t even want to live, as suggested by the disproportionately high rate of suicide in Indigenous communities, then the UN’s definition applies yet again. At the very least, it can be qualified as a cultural genocide, with the effects of a “real” genocide.
What we have to understand here is that, for many people, culture is life.
And we have a lot to learn from them about this fact—and, maybe not coincidentally, about stopping the climate crisis too.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. "The Word 'Genocide' in Canada." Publicly Interested, 18 June 2019, www.publiclyinterested.weebly.com.
Joel Deshaye is a professor of English literature with an interest in publics, publicity, celebrity, mass media, and popular culture.