By David Webster
“Words have meaning,” CBC commentator Michael Enright declared in an editorial broadcast over the national radio network. He objected to the way one word, “genocide,” was used by the national commission of inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women.
In this, Enright is far from alone – top media figures and publications fell over one another to deny the commission’s conclusion that Canada has committed genocide of Indigenous peoples. The word doesn’t apply, they shout in near-unison.
In doing so, they are themselves trying to redefine a word with a very clear meaning. In doing so, they are demonstrating the continuation of Canada’s colonial project and upholding a version of Canadian “niceness” that denies truth.
The commission’s use of the world “genocide” and the backlash against it recalls an earlier conversation, but is much more defensive and vicious towards Indigenous people.
This piece draws on research into truth and reconciliation and the way media narratives are constructed, and is informed by recent twitter exchanges. It does not decolonize: it simply uses traditional Western historical methods to outline the building of backlash by the Canadian media. Far more insightful pieces have been penned by Indigenous scholars, by survivors of violence inside what is now Canada, and by legal scholars. This piece simply describes.
In 2015-17, I coordinated a research project into truth and reconciliation in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Within the scope of that project, student research assistant Cynthia Roy analyzed the media coverage over a three-month period (April-June 2015) around the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada report, which used the term “cultural genocide” to describe the Canadian residential schools system. Her findings, published here on activehistory.ca, summarized a database of all mainstream media coverage that she compiled.
She found that the words “cultural genocide” sparked debate, but saw it as a “conversation.” Only one commentator, former right-wing media baron Conrad Black, wrote with anger and indignation. Others accepted the term and the need for reflection. Columnist Richard Gwyn disliked the term, but still conceded that Canada “botched it all with the residential schools — hugely, outrageously, brutally, inhumanly and utterly ineptly.” Other media commentary tended to accept the term and the need for Canada to do better.
Cynthia argued that the conversation was relatively respectful because respected Canadians, beginning with chief justice of the Supreme Court Beverly McLachlan, used the term in advance of the TRC report release. This was not in her conclusions, but it’s also worth mention that Australia’s National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families was quite comfortable more than 20 years ago using the word genocide: “The Australian practice of Indigenous child removal involved both systematic racial discrimination and genocide as defined by international law.”
What a difference four years makes.
The TRC was not allowed to use the term “genocide” plain and simple, so it defaulted to “cultural genocide.” The commission into murdered and missing Indigenous women used the word genocide, plainly and simply, and backed that up with a lengthy justification that interrogated Canada’s treatment of Indigenous people in the context of the United Nations Genocide Convention and Canadian law.
Canada’s media failed utterly to respond with a thoughtful conversation. The reaction was indignation and denial. With that, powerful Canadians have tried to redefine the concept of “genocide” to mean something quite different from what it means. “Words have meaning,” Enright said, even as he ignored the actual original definition of the word “genocide” in favour of a definition that felt more right to him.
The commission did in fact use “genocide” correctly. The word genocide was coined by Raphael Lemkin, who campaigned hard and successfully for the passage of the Genocide Convention. It defined genocide as any acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.” Genocide could mean killing group members, but it could also mean causing serious bodily or mental harm; inflicting conditions of life designed to destroy the group; preventing births; and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. Lemkin himself identified two phases of genocide: the destruction of a group’s pattern of life, followed by imposition of the oppressor’s national pattern. At a seminar on genocide at Yale a few years back, I learned that genocide could mean the killing of just one person, if that was a killing intended to destroy an identifiable group, as such.
Until 2019, Canadians did not try to narrow and undermine this binding international definition of genocide. Today, driven by influential voices in the daily newspapers, there is a deliberate attempt to change the meaning of the word genocide into one that will not apply to Canadian acts aimed at destroying Indigenous peoples as distinct nations.
Erna Paris, writing in The Globe and Mail, was the first to declare a new, narrower meaning for genocide. Genocide, she wrote, meant “the planned extermination of peoples.” She insisted the commission was wrong to ascribe genocide to “the sum of the social practices, assumptions, and actions detailed in this report.” There is a conversation to be had here, but it is not an honest conversation when it rests on denying that genocide can be, as the report notes, a multi-layered and complex process of acts over time. Neither Europe’s Jewish people nor Turkey’s Armenians nor Rwanda’s Tutsi were killed in a day. Genocide capped a drawn-out process of dehumanizing. In Canada the process involved what Megan Scribe calls “bureaucratized killing” over an extended period.
Paris is the author of Long Shadows, a fine examination of memory after atrocity in Japan and Germany, South Africa and Yugoslavia, and other sites of conflict. But in redefining genocide, she made it easier for less sensitive voices to take the stage.
Senator Roméo Dallaire poured fuel on the simmering backlash. “I’m not comfortable with that,” he told the CBC when asked about the commission’s use of the G-word. So uncomfortable, in fact, that he invented a new definition of genocide in place of that given by the Genocide Convention and Canadian law, driven not by his research but by his genuinely traumatic and tragic experience in Rwanda: “My definition of genocide [is] actually going and slaughtering people.”
Dallaire is not alone in this, but he is incorrect. Genocide means more than that. Dallaire’s own Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies would use the term “mass atrocities” for what Dallaire calls genocide. Genocide itself has another, broader, meaning. The UN General Assembly originally defined it in 1946 as “the denial of the right of existence of entire human groups.” Frank Chalk, the history professor that founded MIGS, has accepted that Indigenous peoples in North America suffered genocide. Dallaire’s post-military career has been driven by his conception of compassion. But Dallaire’s words harmed the debate by giving space to less humanitarian voices than his own.
The Globe and Mail entered the breach with distortion and mockery. The deaths of 38 women did not add up to genocide, it editorialized, ignoring the commission’s finding of an ongoing pattern that constituted genocide. (“Genocide is after all the genesis of settler states,” in Kim Tallbear’s words.) The editorial then resorted to readers’ sense of the essential goodness of Canada, insisting that “the charge of a continuing genocide in Canada is absurd. It simply does not bear scrutiny in 2019.” Readers shared a good laugh and moved on, comforted in their sense of their country’s basic immunity to criticism. But the editorial fueled a backlash grounded in contempt for Indigenous peoples. Occasional Globe contributor Alicia Elliot decided in response not to write for the newspaper again. Instead, her excellent take appears in the Washington Post, and does a better job than this piece of describing the failures of Canada’s major media.
The Toronto Star prides itself on its liberalism, but the Star jumped to the fore of the left-liberal chorus of denial. In its own editorial, the paper cites Dallaire’s hierarchy of real versus uncomfortable genocides. “Placed against the horrific events that have defined the word in modern times — the Holocaust, the slaughter in Rwanda, massacres of Muslims in Bosnia — Canada’s current treatment of Indigenous peoples obviously doesn’t compare,” the newspaper’s editorial board wrote.
The Star was not terribly interested in what had been revealed about murdered and missing Indigenous women. Instead, it worried about hat the word “genocide” would do to Canada’s reputation overseas: “Only three countries (Germany, Rwanda and Cambodia) now acknowledge responsibility for genocide within their borders. Is that a club we want to join?”
As a matter of fact, yes.
Though no country is perfect, Rwanda and Cambodia have benefitted from reflection on their violent pasts. Germany is a model of honest confrontation of its genocidal history – a story told in Long Shadows, among other books. German acceptance of a genocidal past and of national collective responsibility has made a better, stronger and more compassionate country. None of this has hurt Germany, which has the best international reputation of all major countries in the world.
If Canada wants to be honest and not deny its history, then the way Germany has faced its history is not a bad model.
Backlash has reached a peak, with denialism in the ascendant. The “common sense” definition of genocide as only episodic mass killings is becoming normalized, despite the efforts of Indigenous thinkers, genocide scholars, legal experts and others to debunk it. As Dallaire says, the true definition of genocide is “uncomfortable,” so people shy away from it. The Star even put up an online poll that asked its readers to “vote” on whether genocide had taken place, though it has since removed the poll. Provocateur-columnist Warren Kinsella has won cheers with a false claim in the Toronto Sun that “most” experts agreed with Dallaire’s narrower, more comfortable definition of genocide. That’s false. The International Association of Genocide Scholars uses the UN definition. Genocide of Indigenous peoples in North America is discussed in Adam Jones’ Genocide: A Comparative Introduction, and in Ben Kiernan’s Blood and Soil: A Comparative History of Genocide. Genocide, according to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, “is a very specific term, referring to violent crimes committed against a group with the intent to destroy the existence of the group.” On the other hand, there is a “closely related category of international law, crimes against humanity, [that] is defined as widespread or systematic attacks against civilians.” Kinsella’s response to these points of fact has been dismissive at best.
These examples of media backlash show respected Canadians like Roméo Dallaire and Erna Paris taking the opposite tack to that of Beverly McLachlan to the TRC Canada use of the term “cultural genocide.” Instead of accepting, they deny, in order to argue for the essential goodness of Canada. This has serious and harmful effects.
“The consequence of our failure to teach Canada’s true history in our schools or to report on colonial violence against and oppression of Indigenous people is that too many Canadians are blinded to reality and the violence and oppression are allowed to continue,” points out Tanya Talaga, one of the few Indigenous writers in mainstream Canadian journalism, writing in the Toronto Star.
“If the debate over genocide in Canada does nothing else,” writes Daniel Heath Justice, “it highlights the degree to which even ostensibly left-of-centre Canadians are deeply, even pathologically invested in narratives of settler-colonial innocence. They will always change the rules to preserve this self image.” That process is visible today.
“States engage in the destruction of groups, in whole or in part, when they succumb to the idea that national strength depends on the construction and maintenance of a homogenous national identity; in other words, when they privilege assimilation over tolerance,” legal scholar Heidi Matthews points out. Canada is faced with a tough challenge. Its major media has responded with denial and homage to national myths. Still, there are exceptions. “Acknowledging the genocide is going to bring national attention and going to require that Canada take action,” as an editorial in the Yukon News put it. “But if that’s what it takes to spur change, so be it. It hurts to look closely at these issues. It should hurt. It’s supposed to be uncomfortable.”
Yet, as all too often, Canada’s media is comforting the comfortable.
David Webster is an Associate Professor of History at Bishop’s University.