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We need to use the term genocide carefully before it loses all meaning – and impact

Boy am I ever going to get some flack from this post!

I intend to take issue with some of the findings of the Canadian inquiry into the murder and disappearance of First Nations women, more specifically the use of the term ‘genocide’.

For those who are not Canadian, or who are not following this issue, the Canadian government launched a $92 million initiative formerly called the “National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls” to look into the thousands of Indigenous women and girls who were murdered or disappeared across the country in recent decades.

We may disagree on what constitutes a genocide but it would help if we could agree on some common principles

The writers of the report have concluded that “a genocide driven by the disproportionate level of violence faced by Indigenous women and girls occurred in Canada through ‘state actions and inactions rooted in colonialism and colonial ideologies.

Reta Blind, right, sheds tears while embracing Viola Thomas at the final day of hearings at the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, in Richmond, B.C., last year.
Reta Blind, right, sheds tears while embracing Viola Thomas at the final day of hearings at the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, in Richmond, B.C., last year.

Genocide is a powerful word

We may disagree on what constitutes a genocide but it would help if we could agree on some common principles. Here is what the UN has to say about it:

Genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

  • Killing members of the group;
  • Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
  • Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
  • Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
  • Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group

Note the word “intent to destroy”. I think this is critical. In addition, for a genocide to occur does there not have to be a plan by someone (a state, a group of likeminded people)? Can a disparate number of individuals acting independently carry out a genocide? This is what seems to be happening with the murder and disappearance of First Nations women.

Is this really genocide?

We could call earlier efforts dating back to the 19th century genocide as there is ample evidence that the Canadian government sought both to marginalise First Nations and eliminate their cultures. But the random killing of women and girls? No, I am not dismissing this tragedy and I do recognise that there is far too much racism and discrimination against this country’s first inhabitants – we need to eliminate this from our society. Still, I do not see this as a genocide.

When we throw out terms like genocide for what is happening now in Canada we dilute the concept. There are far too many actual genocides in recent history so it is not as if we need to make up examples. To wit:

  • The Turkish government sought to systematically slaughter (or march to their deaths) the Armenian population in the former Ottoman Empire from 1915 to 1917;
  • The Nazi Holocaust of Jews was a deliberate plan to kill them all in what was known as the ‘Final Solution’;
  • China is currently engaged in the genocide of its Uyghur Muslim population through mass incarceration (masked as ‘retraining’) and the cracking down on Islam all in response to a real, but very limited’ terrorism threat from Uyghur Islamist extremists’ (listen to my podcast on this topic); and
  • The Islamic State terrorist group tried to exterminate Iraq’s Yazidi population, whom they saw as apostates and atheists unfit to be allowed to exist, through the mass killing of men and the rape of women and girls, many of whom were sold as slaves in markets in Syria and Iraq in the so-called Caliphate.

These were real genocides. They were carefully planned and had support from the highest levels of government. They were systematic. They were often backed up with documentation. They all sought the complete elimination of peoples and cultures.

Genocide vs National Emergency

The horrific death of thousands of First Nations women and girls is a national emergency. Canadians need collectively to find out why this is occurring and put a stop to it. If racism is feeding it to some extent, which I am sure it is, we need to educate people and call out and reject discrimination when we see it.

But there is no need to use the emotionally-laden term genocide to refer to this tragedy. Let’s use that word for when it really applies.

NB, I am a digital fellow at the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies (MIGS) at Concordia University although these views are my own and do not reflect the position of the Institute.

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