How will it be determined whether indigenous people were the victims of genocide in Canada?
These types of questions were raised in front of the largest group of indigenous scholars from around the world gathered at the International Association of Genocide Scholars conference from July 16-19 at the University of Manitoba.
Academics, community members, and survivors of genocide from Rwanda, Kurdistan, Australia, Argentina and other countries in Latin America and North America met to learn, present on, and participate in debates about genocide and indigenous studies.
The conference looked at whether mass killings; prohibiting political, religious, economic, and cultural practices; and failing to allow groups to maintain livelihoods and fulfill basic survival needs, are all forms of genocide.
One of the overarching themes of the conference related to the challenges of defining genocide in a contemporary context and whether that definition then applies to Canada’s historical treatment of its Aboriginal peoples.
Is the Canadian case relevant?
One of the lead organizers and U of M sociology professor Andrew Woolford hoped that the conference demonstrated to other genocide scholars that the Canadian case deserves greater attention.
Canada presently only recognizes physical forms of genocide, which is even narrower than the international guidelines in the UN convention and case law. Scholars at the conference explored if these measures for framing the issue match the circumstances in Canada, and whether genocide needs to be recognized and addressed as part of our development and practices.
Based on the work of Raphael Lemkin, scholarly work has been done elsewhere to show that genocide involves not only mass killing, but also the destruction of groups and group living.
According to Woolford, what happened in Canada in terms of assimilative policies “provided a vivid illustration of how the attempted destruction of groups can take place in a multitude of ways. In Canada we have [ . . . ] instances of forced starvation, forced assimilation, widespread physical and sexual abuses that attempted to sever the bonds between group members, between family members, between people and their culture, and between people and their territories.”
The conference provided insight on the impacts of assimilative policies on communities in relation to their connection to territory and the destruction of surrounding environment, and whether different forms of more or less overt group control, other than physical violence, constitute as genocide.
The U of M provided a historically symbolic geographical location for hosting a symposium on genocide studies and indigenous people, as the campus was constructed and exists on what some scholars at the conference would consider occupied land.
In a welcoming letter to conference attendees and officials, U of M president David Barnard acknowledged that the university campus was established at the epicentre of Anishinaabe, Metis, Cree, Dakota, and Oji-Cree Nations in Treaty One Territory.
Specifically, the university was founded on traditional lands of the Anishinaabe and the homeland of the Metis Nation. Arguments raised during this conference suggested cases of land expropriation and other violations against First Nations should be genocidal in nature.
Aboriginals underrepresented at U of M
To this day, the visible, longstanding impacts of genocide can be witnessed on our campus, some have claimed.
“The university is committed to building a society where First Nations, Metis, and Inuit peoples, cultures, and traditions are reflected and respected in schools, workplaces, and all public institutions,” Barnard said.
However, population demographics show that First Nations are underrepresented at the U of M.
Only 210 employees and 32 faculty members out of 8,700 faculty and staff members identified as Aboriginal, with representation in nine faculties. Additionally, only 7 .2 per cent of the student population claimed Aboriginal identity.
According to the provincial government, First Nations represent 13.6 per cent of the entire Manitoba population, and just two-thirds of that population received an education at or above the high school level.
Low proportional representation in post-secondary institutions such as the U of M may reflect generational impacts on a wider population that survived patterns of genocide.
Woolford spoke to supposed patterns of genocide, including those expressed by government policies and practices associated with the residential school system, and those who continue to live with and suffer from the negative repercussions of the colonially imposed system.
These patterns are reflective of the historical oppression experienced by Canada’s First Nations, and also happen to meet some of the standard measures collectively proposed by various scholars to morally and legally redefine genocide in Canada.
Popular notions of genocide are rooted in common perceptions about it that involve only mass killings and overt forms of physical violence against particular groups of people. Some researchers at the conference agreed that fully engaging in truth and reconciliation involves publicly clarifying amendments to definitions of the term as part of our shared understanding and for the purpose of adapting national charters, international conventions, and legal codes.
Other scholars cautioned against this by arguing that the term reconciliation is a new assimilative notion, rather than something developed by those affected.
Without undermining variable experiences of genocide, genocidal patterns of group control, and the extent of impact in each global situation, some conference attendees hoped that redefining the term would allow supposed cases of genocide in this country to be re-examined. This could lead to improved measures for determining human rights violations and a new understanding of human rights in Canada.
Survivors of genocide delved into their own stories and experiences of the Rwandan and Kurdish genocides.
Conference-members attended a trip to Turtle Lodge of the Sagkeeng First Nation where victims of assimilative policies now reside. The attendees were welcomed with gift giving, stories, and speeches about the history of the Sagkeeng First Nation and their experiences with genocide and continued survival.
Other circumstances of human group domination and events of physical and psycho-social control were also examined over the course of the conference.
Although many examples explored at the conference showed signs of genocidal patterns, some of the cases, like the one in Sagkeeng, have yet to be recognized as genocide.
The debates also stimulated critical discussion of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR), opening Sept. 20. The museum will showcase issues of human rights violations and triumphs. It will also present exhibits on genocide.
Conference attendees agreed that the CMHR, the first institution of its kind in the world, is the appropriate platform for the genocide debate in Canada to spark international attention.
The CMHR has not declared the existence of genocide in Canada.
The word ‘genocide’ will come up throughout this exhibit, but will not be directly applied to the Canadian context.
Woolford stated that although settler-colonial genocide would not be explicitly exhibited at the museum, the question would be raised. The museum seeks to provide context to museum observers, and then ask observers to determine whether or not genocide has occurred for themselves.