Historians and Indigenous Genocide in Saskatchewan

By Robert Alexander Innes

[This essay was first published last June on Shekon Neechie. It asks questions about the approach of Canadian historians to genocide that are again relevant after the response of much of the media to the MMIWG- Final Report.]

As a result of the Calls to Action released by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) the notion that Indigenous people endured cultural genocide has garnered much discussion. For many, who point to the number of children who died in residential schools, the use of ‘cultural’ genocide waters down the impact residential schools had on Indigenous people as cultural has come to be seen as a lesser form of genocide.  For them, residential school was outright genocide.  The term cultural genocide for Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term genocide, did not refer to a lesser form of genocide just another way genocide leads to the destruction of a people, which was the Lemkin’s original meaning of term. According to Benevenuto, Woolford, and Hinton after the Second World War genocide as a concept fell into disuse till the 1980s when a new generation of scholars began to engage with it. However, as they state, these scholars, ‘generally did not share Lemkin’s broad conceptualization of genocide.”[1]  Instead, these scholars, ‘tended to implicitly adopt the Holocaust as a conceptual prototype.”  Moreover, Benevenuto, Woolford, and Hinton state this resulted in ‘the trend of conceptually splitting genocide from cultural genocide…inhibiting a full discussion of colonial genocide.”[2]  As these authors state, “[s]een through the lens of the Holocaust, the broader public and many academics consider genocide to be the most extreme from of violence imaginable. According to this widespread view, including other forms of destruction beside mass murder risks diluting the meaning of the term.”[3] For Benevenuto, Woolford, and Hinton, and others, cultural genocide is the correct term.  Not because it signals a lesser form of genocide but because it is genocide.  I begin with mentioning this mainly because genocide and residential schools has received so much attention, and has also sparked discussion about other ways that genocide has occurred in Canada.[4]

These conversations are important, however, since there has been little discussion of the mass murder type of genocide of Indigenous people in Canada, a subtle message that has been conveyed through these dialogues is that mass killing of Indigenous people has not occurred here.  For example, neither historians nor the Canadian government have acknowledged that genocide occurred in the early 1880s in Treaty 4 territory; a genocide that killed hundreds and perhaps thousands of First Nations and Métis people. Many historians have detailed how the Canadian government implemented a starvation policy in the Cypress Hills in southwest Saskatchewan and southeastern Alberta as a means to exert control over First Nations people in the region and force them to move to other areas.  It is difficult to understand why historians have not categorized the deaths caused by the starvation policy as a genocide when they all agree that the government knew prior to cutting off food rations many people were dying of starvation and have all said that the policy killed a large number of people. Some historians may be reluctant to equate the deaths of Indigenous people to the Holocaust while others may feel the numbers are not adequate enough to be considered genocide – even though they don’t really know how many died as there has been no attempt to find those numbers.  Whatever the reason, this paper will show that there is a way to ascertain the number of deaths and that the procedure to determine the number is actually just straightforward history.[5]  In outlining the context of the genocide and showing how one Saskatchewan First Nation, Cowessess First Nation, through negotiations for its Treaty Land Entitlement (TLE) claim in the 1990s determined how many of its band members died, this paper asks, considering the number of historians who have looked at the starvation policy, why is it that none have done the work to determine the number of deaths the Canadian government caused from this policy?  To be clear, the argument put forth here is that the policy that has come to be known as the starvation policy was an act of genocide.

[Read the remainder of the essay on Shekon Neechie]

[1] Jeff Benevenuto, Andrew Woolford, and Alexander Laban Hinton, “Introduction: Colonial Genocide in Indigenous North America,” in Colonial Genocide in Indigenous North America, edited by Andrew Woolford, Jeff Benevenuto, and Laban Hinton (Durham, NC: Dude University Press, 2014)

[2] Ibid 10

[3] Ibid, 2

[4] See for example: Woolford, Benevenuto, and Hinton, Colonial Genocide; Ken Coates, “Second Thoughts about Residential Schools,” Dorchester Review 4, no. 2 (2014); Crystal Fraser and Ian Mosby, “Setting Canadian History Right?: A Response to Ken Coates’ ‘Second Thoughts about Residential Schools,’” Active History (https://activehistory.ca/papers/paper-20/); Payam Akhavan, “Cultural Genocide: Legal Libel or Mourning Metaphor,” McGill Law Journal 62 (2016): 243-270; 25-19; Ronald Neizen, Truth and Indignation: Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Indian Residential Schools, Second edition (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017); J.ames R. Miller, Residential School and Reconciliation: Canada Confronts its History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017); Brieg Capitaine and Karine Vanthuyne, eds. Power Through Testimony: Reframing Residential Schools in the Age of Reconciliation (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2017).

[5] It should be noted that the editors of the Canadian Historical Review rejected this paper because I did not utilize original primary source research.  They mentioned that they would be interested in publishing the piece if I refocused the paper on the methodological issues that arise from the proceeding discussion and away from a critique of historians.

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