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Redefining genocide

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While many Canadians were probably dismissing recent claims that Canada is 'exterminating' its native population, there is a current of academia that is fixated on finding Canada guilty of genocide against its indigenous population, so fixated that they need to modify the meaning of that term, in order to apply it to Canada.

The crime of genocide is codified internationally in the UN Convention on Genocide but in a recent Learning Curve column (Genocide was at work here, Oct. 13), Andrew Woolford, Jeff Benvenuto and Alex Hinton argued that: "Genocide is first and foremost about the destruction of group life."

The authors do not mean the lives that comprise the group but rather "their languages, cultural practices, governance structures and territories."

A genocide without mass murder ceases to be genocide, as most would understand the term. The authors rely on the notes of Raphael Lemkin, a pioneer in our understanding of genocide, to justify including the idea of "cultural genocide." Lemkin provided the seminal work in establishing genocide as a crime, but it is an error to regard him as the titular authority on what is genocide given its legal codification and the precedents established in trial.

To argue that cultural genocide amounts to actual genocide is to abstract genocide, and risk equating the death of ideas with the death of humans. Indeed, the authors rank the destruction of group life above that of the group's lives.

As the crime of genocide is definably one of intent, can one prosecute for cultural genocide when there is no demonstrable intent to cause mass loss of life without falling into the trap of arguing that genocide can be unintentional?

The authors anticipate that paradox and use semantic chicanery to impute intent. Thus the Canadian experience is not distinguished from the American, in which mass murders of natives did occur: "North America has had its own genocides." No distinction is made between colonial states, they are treated as a monolithic programme and characterized militaristically as "the colonial assault on indigenous peoples" to suggest a coherent, military campaign.

The authors point to the residential schools as an example of genocide and they quote Justice Murray Sinclair, head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission: "I cannot see any other conclusion but that genocide was at work here." Does Sinclair want to see any other conclusion? At a Colonial Genocide and Indigenous North America workshop, what other conclusion would the participants expect? At an earlier forum where Sinclair spoke to a mainly Jewish audience, including Holocaust survivors, he refrained from characterizing the IRS as a genocide. Convincing the credulous is easy; convincing the experienced not so much.

The authors conclude: "Until Canadians confront how the emergence of our nation impacted and continues to impact those already here, we are far removed from reconciliation." Is reconciliation possible given those terms? What does confronting the impact of Canada's emergence mean? The authors provide no clear prescription by suggesting vague and broad contrition on the part of non-indigenous Canadians, most having arrived long after the establishment of the IRS.

Residential schools were presented as intending, in part, to address the penury of living on reserves, and few at the time would have argued against such an ameliorative program. It is generally argued now that the true intent of the IRS, however, was 'to kill the Indian in the child.' Duncan Campbell Scott's infamous quote does not equate to an intent to kill the child unless it can be shown he knew 'killing the Indian' would kill the child.

It is hard to reconcile the poet who romanticized natives with being their genocidaire. Scott had a fatalistic view of natives, not a hateful one. Educating people presupposes their continued existence. If physical annihilation had been the ultimate aim of officials, all they had to do was nothing as, in their view, the isolation and segregation of reserves were slowly but surely decimating natives. The perception of reserves as slow death was widespread for most of the 20th century and figured prominently in the Nazis' scheme to deport Jews to a reserve.

Answering for the sins of one's father is one thing but what of all those whose fathers weren't in Canada at the time? Or those whose fathers were charged a head tax or interned? Or those whose fathers perished in the Holocaust?

Most Canadians believe strongly in human equality and would never consent to establishing a residential school system today. For those Canadians, the prime minister's apology and the subsequent compensation are due and meaningful redress. There is no guilt that can be assigned to those who had nothing to do with the IRS and never would; it is not ethical to ask us to pay a moral toll for being in Canada.

The moral demarcation required in a majority to permit the genocide of a minority has never existed in Canada and never will in what is now an entrenched cosmopolitan milieu.

If civil society means 'solidarity with strangers,' aren't we already where we need to be? To suggest something more is required to confront the emergence of Canada is to step towards the irreconcilable. Who would accept responsibility for a crime they did not commit, for one of the most morally repugnant crimes imaginable; for a genocide that is equivocal anyway for the absence of intentional mass death?

Why would anyone want to accuse a people of genocide when there are no grounds for prosecution in the World Court? For no good reasons ranging between fetishistic deconstruction and nationalistic justification.

Walking a mile in your moccasins doesn't mean we have to walk backwards.

Michael Melanson is a freelance writer and independent social historian of the Third Reich.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 3, 2012 A17

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