By Daniel Rück and Valerie Deacon
According to Gregory Stanton, president of Genocide Watch, the eighth stage of genocide is denial. Perpetrators of genocides will do what they can to destroy evidence, intimidate witnesses, blame victims, block investigations, and change the narrative. No one wants to be remembered for having committed genocide, and few citizens of a country can easily reconcile their positive feelings about their country and its institutions with the fact that these same institutions have been used to commit genocide.
So when the Inquiry for Missing and Murdered Women and Girls released its report on June 3, 2019 framing its argument around the historic and ongoing genocide against Indigenous peoples in Canada, it’s not surprising that the overwhelming response by mainstream commentators in Canada was denial.
Not only did it seem many prominent commentators did not read the report, many focused exclusively on the use of the term ‘genocide.’ They argued that using the term in the Canadian context is inappropriate and harmful, and that what happens in Canada does not correspond with what they understand as the definition of genocide. Most of these critics did not engage with the report’s rigorous analysis of how violence against Indigenous women and girls fits into an overall context of historical and ongoing genocide, nor with the legal definition of the word laid out in the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
Canadians are largely comfortable using the word ‘genocide’ for events that happened elsewhere—in Germany, Rwanda, Turkey, Bosnia, or Ukraine—but it’s uncomfortable when someone claims it happens here. Uncomfortable for many non-Indigenous people anyway; Indigenous people have been using this term for decades to describe what happened and continues to happen.
But what many don’t know is that even the most straightforward cases of genocide have been controversial, and doggedly denied. In Rwanda, where in 1994 ethnic Hutus slaughtered up to a million ethnic Tutsis, and raped up to half a million Tutsi women, there has for years now been a concerted effort to make excuses for perpetrators, blame victims, and to deny genocide.
At the time of the genocide itself, President Clinton instructed his spokesmen not to use the word ‘genocide’ because officials felt “so stark a label could inflame public calls for action the Administration was unwilling to take.”
There are times when it seems almost impossible to get citizens to fully acknowledge the crimes that were committed in their names. Even the most well-known genocide of the twentieth century – the Holocaust – was not easily or readily grasped by the people who had benefited from it. Despite concerted re-education and denazification measures, the majority of Germans in the immediate postwar felt that ‘Nazism was a good idea, badly applied’. Although civilians in West Germany were made to tour concentration camps, watch films that documented Nazi crimes, and fill out extensive paperwork detailing their own complicity in the Nazi regime, 37 percent of them still believed it was better to have no Jews in Germany (Tony Judt, Postwar, 58). For two decades, Germans suffered from collective amnesia about their country’s ‘singular crime’. However, beginning in the 1960s (and intensifying in the 1970s), Germans came to publicly acknowledge what had been done to Jews in their name. This recognition was not an accident or a stroke of luck. The collective complicity of Germans is known because of laws, trials against perpetrators, television programmes and movies that deal explicitly with the subject, and successful educational initiatives. Even still, ongoing vigilance is required to maintain the widespread awareness about the Holocaust.
We can see similar patterns of denial in France regarding the role the wartime government played in assisting the Nazis in their genocidal crimes. From 1940 to 1944, the Vichy government in France instituted anti-Jewish laws, stole Jewish property, and rounded up the country’s Jewish population for transfer to German concentration and extermination camps. All of this was done by the French administration, with little (and sometimes no) insistence from the Germans. Until 1995, this complicity was never acknowledged by the French government, nor was it widely acknowledged by the French in general.
In Turkey, where 1.5 million Armenians were killed during the First World War, there has been almost no public reckoning with this past, despite a century’s worth of foreign scholarship and journalism detailing the genocide. Continued refusal within the country to call these atrocities ‘genocide’ means that only nine percent of Turks feel that the government should apologize for those crimes, as the murder of Armenian Christians is folded into a broad category of things that happen during war. The case of Turkey reminds us that there is no expiry date for cultural amnesia.
We can hope that Canada is passing through this moment of denial as part of the path to coming to terms with the crimes against Indigenous peoples, and changing our ways. Already some 53% of Canadians agree that the widespread violence against Indigenous women and girls should be understood as being part of an ongoing genocide.
Most institutions and structures that facilitate the atrocities were not created by the current generation of Canadians, but they continue to be sustained by Canadians’ willful and unacknowledged racisms, both individual and collective. It’s up to every non-Indigenous person to take responsibility and make lasting changes in whatever ways we can: in our jobs, in our relationships, in the words we use, in the voting booth, in how we spend our money and time—by rejecting hate and violence in all of its forms. As long as we deny genocides against Indigenous peoples in Canada, our generations will be remembered like the Germans of the 1940s and 50s who denied what the rest of the world knew they were responsible for. And continued denial should be understood as willful, active promotion of Indigenous suffering and erasure. Indigenous people have long understood what is happening as genocide. Now it’s time for the rest of us to stop denying it, and start dealing with it.
Valerie Deacon is a Clinical Assistant Professor of History and Manager of Writing, Speaking, & Academic Integrity at NYU Shanghai. She works on modern European history, with a focus on WWII and resistance.
Daniel Rück is Assistant Professor in the Department of History and in the Institute of Canadian and Aboriginal Studies at the University of Ottawa. He researches and teaches the historical relationship between the Canadian state, Indigenous peoples, and the land.