Should the tragedy of missing and murdered Indigenous women be called a genocide? That question is fuelling much passion. To those of us who define “genocide” as what the Nazis did to the Jews, the idea is offensive. But to a generation of millennials, the National Inquiry Into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls got it right. As the commissioners wrote in their report, Canada has pursued "a continuous policy, with shifting expressed motives but an ultimately steady intention, to destroy Indigenous peoples physically, biologically, and as social units.” This policy is not just embedded in our history, but is alive and active in the present day.
Not surprisingly, the pushback against the idea of Canada as a genocidal state has been intense. “If we say everything is a genocide, then nothing is a genocide,” said Irwin Cotler, the noted human-rights lawyer. When asked if the term should be applied to Canada, retired general Roméo Dallaire, who saw the genocide in Rwanda up close, said, ”I’m not comfortable with that.”
But these men increasingly represent the past. Here is the future, as expressed by Tanya Talaga, a high-profile Indigenous writer for the Toronto Star:
“I should have realized that the inquiry’s finding that Indigenous people are the victims of a ‘race-based’ genocide empowered by colonial structures would be mocked by pundits in the media. After all, the media is among those colonial structures. My profession has been complicit in the suffering of Indigenous people. It still is.”
Justin Trudeau cannot bridge this chasm. And so he’s floundering. On the morning the commissioners released their report, he refused to use the G-word. But later in the day he changed his mind. “It was genocide,” he said. A week after that, he tried to have it both ways. “I accept the commissioners’ report – including the fact that they used the word ‘genocide’ – but for me it is a bit more appropriate to talk of a cultural genocide,” he said in an interview with Radio-Canada. Who knows what he will say tomorrow?
What’s striking is that this dispute over the most loaded of all words comes at a time when the prospects for Indigenous Canadians have never been more hopeful. Levels of educational attainment have risen. Most major universities in Canada have prominent Indigenous faculty members who teach law and history on their own terms. Indigenous Canadians have won substantial rights to negotiate over pipelines and other resource development. Native arts and artists are showcased across the country. Public acknowledgments that we stand on stolen land are common.
All of this is irrelevant to millennials, and to an increasing number of older liberals as well. In the past few years they have moved sharply to the left. What’s happening in Canada is part of a much bigger trend that is transforming the political landscape both here and in the U.S. As writer and academic Zach Goldberg explains in Tablet magazine: “A sea change has taken place in American political life. The force driving this change is the digital-era style of moral politics known as ‘wokeness,’ a phenomenon that has become pervasive in recent years …"
The main focus of the new wokeness is racial injustice. In Canada this means the mistreatment of Indigenous people. In the U.S., it means the mistreatment of black people. As Mr. Goldberg points out, white liberal support for affirmative action and other measures to redress racial injustice has increased so rapidly that white liberals have become more liberal on social issues than black people themselves. They also express more favourable attitudes toward non-white people than they do for white people (which probably helps explain their contempt for the “unearned privilege” of old, white men).
This sea change in attitudes is driven by moral outrage and amplified by social media – surely the most effective carrier for moral outrage yet invented. It has pushed the Democratic Party far to the left. And it’s what fuels the increasing support for reparations for black Americans – a once-marginal idea that has now gone mainstream, attracting the support of presidential candidates such as Elizabeth Warren and the conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks.
Wokeness – and not just Donald Trump – is one reason why American politics has become so polarized. Wokeness also explains why Justin Trudeau – surely the wokest Prime Minister ever – attracts contempt from the morally outraged for his no doubt sincere efforts at truth and reconciliation. Wokeness means that when it comes to race and gender issues, many of us are stranded on a different planet from our younger colleagues and our kids.
Most of us (in the older generation, anyway) sincerely believe that Canada is intrinsically good. We believe that although the treatment of Canada’s Indigenous people has been wrong, negligent, even at times evil, our country today is not inherently racist, let alone genocidal. The morally outraged disagree. They think the quarrel over the term “genocide” is just a sideshow that distracts us from our refusal to see what’s really going on. So, as far as they’re concerned, reparations in some form came due long ago.
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