Mary AGNES WELCH writes (The genocide test, July 12) that a conversation is underway about "whether the treatment of indigenous peoples -- the forced relocations, the man-made famines, the loss of land, the outlawing of religious practices and especially the removal of children over the last century -- meets the genocide test."
Some academics and activists want the public to regard Canada's past treatment of indigenous peoples as unqualified genocide. "A fuller historic picture" would correct perception.
"It's probably faster and more effective to start with the next generation than fighting entrenched approaches based on denial," says Charlene Bearhead. Implying an equivalency with Holocaust denial, Bearhead stigmatizes anyone who challenges the charge of genocide. Bearhead and others have judged Canada guilty, and all that remains is to compel Canadians under moral and political duress to confess to their national crime.
As Welch concedes, there were few mass killings or instances of direct physical destruction in Canadian history. Such acts comprise what most people would understand as genocide. Faced with that absence of slaughter, academics such as University of Manitoba sociologist Andrew Woolford have been "teasing out" a more nuanced definition of genocide based upon the seminal work of Raphael Lemkin. The destruction of culture, Woolford has found, is a destruction of group "life" constituting genocide.
There is little chance of revising the United Nations Genocide Convention, so what end does revising the definition of genocide serve? Perhaps this reassessment of history will further reconciliation. Bearhead has deferred reconciliation for at least another generation, but Welch reveals how unlikely reconciliation is at any time. For aboriginal peoples, genocide "describes neatly not just what happened over the last century, but what's continuing today." Besides the high rates of tuberculosis on reserve and unresolved treaty claims, there are also the missing or murdered aboriginal women and the huge rates of child apprehension and youth suicides.
The RCMP showed most of the murdered aboriginal women were killed by people they knew. Southern Chiefs Organization Grand Chief Terry Nelson said recently the high number of aboriginal children in CFS care was "the definition of genocide." Since devolution, those seizures have been undertaken by aboriginal agencies. Groups do not target themselves for genocide and suicides, by definition, are not genocide, but wholesale judgment seems to be the point.
The furtive prospecting of Lemkin's work fails the prosecution: "(Genocide) is intended rather to signify a co-ordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves."
The alleged genocidal actions of Canada are scattered throughout its history. How is Lemkin's standard of co-ordinated intention and action possible given such a span of years and different governments? It is only possible to construe such co-ordination if one sees colonialism as a unifying medium of conspiracy, and genocide as a fundamental characteristic of European settlement. In other words, it is only possible to see such co-ordination as a function of race where homogeneity and constancy of will can be explained.
The accusers claim the residential schools meet the convention's fifth clause: forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. The transfer has to be permanent: Students were able to return home for summer and after graduation. Educating a people presupposes their continued physical existence in any case.
Proving intent has been a persistent challenge to the accusers so while there may be scant evidence of mass killing, "there are many cases of policies whose indirect intent was to destroy culture at the very least, and First Nations (people) would argue the upshot was the same -- the end of them as a people."
There is no such thing as unintended genocide by anyone's definition, and it follows that indirect intent is not intent: The perpetrators have to know what they are doing.
If Woolford et al are correct in their assessment of Canada's genocide, then we are left with the prospect that Canada has committed history's longest -- and unpunished -- genocide, something far worse than the Holocaust, the image of which image the term popularly conjures.
In Accounting for Genocide: Canada's Bureaucratic Assault on Aboriginal People, authors Dean Neu and Richard Therrien suggest how terrible is the reckoning: "Which is worse -- the murdering of millions of human beings over a short period of time, or slowly dissolving their existence through dehumanization and disease and coercion over several generations?
"Canadian Indian policy may not have been as overt or concentrated as the Holocaust... but it was nonetheless violent and achieved much the same ends. It may even be said Canadian policy has been more effective than Nazi policy, since none of Canada's First Nations have yet to regain full statehood, whereas the Jews have Israel."
Neu and Therrien suggest the Nazi death camps "may have found their infancy in the social engineering projects of Canada." Rather than being comparable genocidaires, we are worse for our inspiring example, so denying the Canadian genocide is worse than denying the Holocaust, more so for the fact the perpetrators have escaped justice and continue to commit the crime. Denial of the current crime is complicity.
It is difficult to see what is gained by revising the definition of genocide to the point where Canadian aboriginal policy can be condemned in total. Assigning victimhood so broadly is dehumanizing in itself and an insidious assertion of superiority.
Militant aboriginal nationalists use accusations of genocide to justify their quest for statehood.
For left-leaning moralists, labelling Canada as history's greatest genocidal state is the chance to damn the Establishment absolutely and shepherd its orphans to righteous contrition.
But for the aboriginal individual, how do they reconcile their self to a state that is still trying to kill them? The narrative of ongoing genocide leads logically to radical dissociation and as history shows, it's not far from the prophylactic to the pre-emptive for a national community that believes its existence is imminently threatened.
Michael Melanson is a Winnipeg writer.