The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls was released in June 2019. It’s over 1,000 pages long and comes in 2 volumes.
Even though it has 231 calls for justice, people got hung up on the report’s use of the word genocide. Critics of the term argue that since Indigenous people in Canada weren’t rounded up into concentration camps and executed by the millions, as was done to Jewish people and others during the Holocaust, we can’t use genocide to refer to Indigenous experience. They also say that what happened to Indigenous people doesn’t parallel the Rwandan genocide, another reason to not use the word.
Except these critics are wrong.
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Merriam-Webster defines genocide as “the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group”. As does the Random House Unabridged Dictionary. The Collins English Dictionary defines it as “the policy of deliberately killing a nationality or ethnic group”. The Oxford Dictionary uses “The deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular nation or ethnic group.”. The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as “the murder of a whole group of people, especially a whole nation, race, or religious group”.
Now keep in mind that dictionaries don’t dictate what words mean; they just report how the general public uses them. To find out what words actually mean, rather than how people generally interpret them, we must consider academic sources.
In 1944, Polish lawyer Raphäel Lemkin coined genocide in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, combining the Greek prefix genos– and the Latin suffix –cide, creating a word that literally meant “race (tribe) killing”.
In his book, he specifically states:
“Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.”
During the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the UN codified genocide as a crime, defining it as committing any of 5 acts “with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”
Those 5 acts are:
- 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.
Marion Buller, the inquiry’s chief commissioner, in relation to genocide in Canada, referred to it as the
“persistent and deliberate pattern of systemic racial and gendered human- and Indigenous-rights violations and abuses, perpetuated historically and maintained today by the Canadian state, designed to displace Indigenous people from their lands, social structures and governments, and to eradicate their existence as nations, communities, families and individuals.”
The report itself, which the critics either haven’t read or choose to ignore, specifies their usage of genocide:
“The truths shared in these National Inquiry hearings tell the story – or, more accurately, thousands of stories – of acts of genocide against First Nations, Inuit and Métis women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people. This violence amounts to a race-based genocide of Indigenous Peoples, including First Nations, Inuit, and Métis, which especially targets women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people. This genocide has been empowered by colonial structures, evidenced notably by the Indian Act, the Sixties Scoop, residential schools, and breaches of human and Inuit, Métis and First Nations rights, leading directly to the current increased rates of violence, death, and suicide in Indigenous populations.”
It goes on to define genocide over 2.5 pages, including:
“Considering the application of genocide on both legal and social fronts also means examining the historical record in light of the particular ways in which the programs aimed at subjugating and eliminating Indigenous Peoples were enacted, and the contemporary effect of these structures in the ways that many programs and pieces of legislation continue to be administered. In the Canadian context, and in reference to Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people, some examples include: deaths of women in police custody; the failure to protect Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people from exploitation and trafficking, as well as from known killers; the crisis of child welfare; physical, sexual, and mental abuse inflicted on Indigenous women and girls in state institutions; the denial of Status and membership for First Nations; the removal of children; forced relocation and its impacts; purposeful, chronic underfunding of essential human services; coerced sterilizations; and more.”
It’s clear that genocide is an accurate term to describe the violence and disproportionate death rates of Indigenous peoples in what is now called Canada.