By Alvin Finkel
The decision of the Commission on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women to use the word “genocide” to describe past Canadian state policies regarding Indigenous women has occasioned heated debate about whether that word is appropriate for anything short of a conscious state plan to rapidly physically eliminate all members of a defined group or to thoroughly destroy their culture and thus eliminate them as a unique entity. The Commission suggests that in fact the latter has been the goal of Canadian governments all along and that condoning physical violence against Indigenous women has been an unstated side effect of attitudes and policies that deny the right of Canada’s Indigenous people to preserve their millennial cultures.
Decisions about what human horror stories qualify as genocide are largely political. There is, of course, consensus that Hitler planned to murder all Jews and managed to kill the majority of them in areas that were under German control at some point during his rule. His murder of Roma was also clearly genocide.
But what about the Holodomor, the murder through famine in Ukraine in 1932-1933? There may have been as many deaths of Ukrainians as a result of Stalin’s maniacal efforts to collectivize and industrialize Ukrainian farming so as to accelerate Soviet industrialization as of Jews in the Holocaust. Many historians and governments view the famine as a genocide, but the Russian government and some historians deny that Stalin, while unbending in his efforts to collectivize peasants’ landholdings, meant to eradicate the Ukrainians as an ethnic group. But claims that he was only involved in misguided class warfare against peasants are contradicted by the Soviet decision to distribute crops seized from Ukrainian peasants not to Ukrainian workers but to workers in other republics, leaving that republic’s workers to share the fate of their peasant co-ethnics.
While most Western scholars seem inclined to qualify the Soviet-induced Ukrainian famine as a genocide, one almost never sees that term employed in discussions about British-induced famines in India and elsewhere. Colonial-era famines began with one in Bengal between 1770 and 1773 that wiped out 10 million lives, a third of all Bengalis. Within a decade another two famines, one in South India’s Tamil region and one in North India, accounted for another 20 million deaths. In all three cases, and many more before independence, the famines were the product of forced monoculture for export purposes and refusal of the British authorities to allow imports of food from areas unaffected by crop failures to the suddenly infertile regions.
Apologists for the British authorities suggest that such famines predated the British and were nature’s way of reducing overpopulation in India. But Indian scholars reject such claims, noting that traditional Indian economies featured a variety of crops as well as gathered fruits and vegetables, irrigation projects, storage of surpluses, and sharing arrangements across wide areas so as to provide insurance for all in case of scarcities. Even during the British raj, the princely states that paid tribute to Britain, but were not incorporated into the area under direct British rule, fared far better than the areas firmly under Britain’s thumb.
The last of the Bengal famines occurred after the Holodomor. In 1942-3, though Bengal produced a bumper crop of rice, two to three million Bengalis died of famine as the British authorities exported most of that crop to reinforce the war effort. Again, it was a decision not to feed people rather than a lack of food that resulted in Indian deaths. In short, what India experienced for much of the colonial period was a kind of economic genocide that paralleled the Holodomor but under capitalist conditions.
Similarly, though we tend to think of the “Irish famine” of 1846, which resulted in at least a million deaths and two million Irish fleeing their country, in terms of the failure of the potato crop, Ireland produced enough food that year to easily satisfy the food requirements of all of the Irish people. But British policy insisted upon the export of most of the crops out of Ireland, leaving Ireland’s poverty-stricken masses, to whom London offered minimal relief, in hunger.
Certain Irish stereotypes create the notion that the potato growers created their own fate because they focused on one crop and an unreliable one at that. In fact they had little choice since the English had much earlier dispossessed them of the better lands on their island, leaving them to attempt to survive in the marginal areas where the potato was about the most reliable crop they could grow. Like the Indian farmers, the Irish were victims of Britain who were stereotyped as the authors of their own misfortune.
Across Africa and Asia, the various European countries imposed regimes of quasi-slavery that left millions dead. The armies of Belgian’s King Leopold II, forcing the Native people of the Congo to supply limitless ivory and rubber, slaughtered between six and ten million of the 20 to 30 million people estimated to be living in the Congo basin.
“Economic genocide” also best describes the fate of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas who were conquered by Spain and Portugal. While the numbers of people in the Americas in 1500, as European colonization began, are calculated as from anywhere from 20 million to 100 million, there were only 1.5 million Indigenous people across the two continents by 1650. While European germs killed many, populations did spring back if they were largely left in control of their lands and their labour as was the case in the fur trade. But for the most part that did not happen. In Potosi, in Bolivia, as many as 4 million miners died in the silver mines over several centuries. The Spanish mineowners forced Indigenous men into the mines to work until their death without ever seeing daylight again and then replaced the dying with slaves still alive.
Because of the fur trade, the early Canadian story of European-Indigenous relations seems tame compared to the Spanish American story. But as settlement replaced the fur trade, dispossession of Indigenous lands, and then efforts to destroy their cultures and break their spirits came to British North America and then Canada. The dispossession was arguably less violent than in the United States not because the Canadian authorities were gentler than because the American experience showed Canadian Indigenous people that it was impossible to fight people who had so little regard for human life as Europeans. In any case, what followed was a horror story that still has not ended despite many Canadian politicians expressing fine words completely disconnected from their actions.
Like the British—and like the Americans, whose record in slaughtering Indigenous people, Latinos, and Asians also counts in the millions—Canadians like to think of themselves as civilized folks whom no respectable person can accuse of genocide or even racism except for the most common-garden variety. Stephen Harper as prime minister famously said that Canada had no history of colonialism. But those who study Indigenous-colonial relations know better, and whether or not we want to use the term “genocide” to describe a long history of racism and sexism towards Indigenous peoples, we need to come to terms with our nation’s savagery towards the first inhabitants of our continent. And we need to act on what commissions like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and now the Commission on the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women have recommended. Or we will never get beyond wordplay as opposed to implementing social justice.
Alvin Finkel is the author of Compassion: A Global History of Social Policy. He is professor emeritus of History at Athabasca University, president of the Alberta Labour History Institute, and co-author of the two-volume History of the Canadian Peoples, now in its 7th editions.