Words matter. In a period when traditional media compete with social media, where everyone on the planet can pretty much find a place to say whatever they want, the weight of words can seem lost in the deluge of opinions, aspersions and insults. So, it is encouraging, in some ways, to see a pitched battle over the use of a single word. It assures us that many people still understand the power that language can have.
After the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 2015 final report, the federal government set up the National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls. The MMIWG report, released last week, concluded that there are “serious reasons to believe that Canada’s past and current policies, omissions and actions towards first Nations peoples, Inuit and Métis amount to genocide….”
The use of the term genocide has sparked a debate. Top federal officials at first avoided using the word. At the ceremony marking the release of the report, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was interrupted by an audience member who yelled, “Genocide! Say it!” Trudeau opted against it on that day, but he would use the term later in the week. Justice Minister David Lametti deflected discussion, saying he would leave the determination around the use of the term genocide “to academics and experts.”
The 1948 Genocide Convention defines it as “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Raphael Lemkin, the Polish Jew who coined the term, described genocide as an effort to destroy the foundations of a national group with the objective of annihilation. While genocide certainly includes state-led mass murder, the term can also incorporate a range of less aggressively lethal acts, such as Canada’s residential schools system, the core goal of which was to eradicate indigenous cultures and languages among native peoples in the country.
The report identifies “colonial structures,” including the Indian Act, the Sixties Scoop, residential schools and offences against human rights, as antecedents to current rates of traumatic violence, suicide and deaths among indigenous populations.
The MMIWG report makes a series of recommendations, including, for example, that police services investigate officers for discrimination and mistreatment against indigenous peoples and failures to investigate crimes, government funding to improve recruitment of indigenous peoples into policing, a national task force to review and potentially reinvestigate every unresolved case and a standardizing of protocols around treatment of the thousands of missing and murdered women.
The chief commissioner, Marion Buller, chose the term genocide determinedly and used it throughout the report.
“This report is about deliberate race, identity and gender-based genocide,” she wrote in the opening paragraph of the final report.
However, the report also acknowledged that there are “outstanding disagreements” over the definition of the term. Alongside the final report came a 43-page legal analysis of the term genocide and how it applies to the Canadian situation.
The lead author of the legal assessment, Fanny Lafontaine, a specialist on international criminal justice and human rights at Université Laval, said, “I think it has to be understood as a very distinct type of genocide from the Holocaust…. Genocide is composed of lethal and nonlethal acts. All of that together leads to the physical destruction of indigenous people, but also as a social unit. It’s the genocide taken as numerous acts spanning decades, basically, that is the root cause of the violence against [indigenous] women,” she told the National Post.
RCMP statistics indicate that 16% of female homicides in Canada between 1980 and 2012 were perpetrated against indigenous women, who make up just 4% of the population. This is triple the rate of nonindigenous women and double those of indigenous men. Testimony from individuals and families that were incorporated into the final report tell a harrowing story of violence and dehumanization.
Some might say that the debate over the term genocide detracts from the urgent, less theoretical components of the report and its recommendations. Maybe. But the considered choice by those who best understand the social impacts of systemic discrimination against indigenous Canadians, especially indigenous women, to use the term genocide should give us pause. Among Jewish observers, there may be an understandable sensitivity to anything that seems to shift the weight of the word, which was created specifically to articulate the Jewish experience in the Shoah. Yet, we should also take this opportunity to learn and understand why and how a community in our midst would articulate their own experiences as amounting to genocide.
Knee-jerk responses are not helpful on this front (or any, probably) and, while the arguments over the meaning and intent of the term reassure us that people still appreciate the power of words, we might also caution not to get stalled over this debate. What non-indigenous Canadians should do at this point – especially if we have an issue with the use of the term genocide – is to dive deeply into the tragic legacies of colonialism that have led to this moment and try to understand why this term was carefully chosen. Perhaps, we can each start with a commitment to read the report.