Erna Paris is a Toronto-based author. Her book Long Shadows: Truth, Lies and History inspired the House of Commons motion to apologize to survivors of Canadian residential schools
Watching the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls present its final report to federal government officials in Gatineau earlier this week was a searing experience. The ceremony helped to restore respect and dignity to the more than 1,000 murdered women whose lives were taken by perpetrators who preyed upon their vulnerability.
Many of the inquiry’s hundreds of recommendations regarding the safety of Indigenous women and girls look like useful proposals, such as a possible shift to Indigenous-specific sentencing options, improvements to the restraining-order system for violent partners and inclusive police work. The Canadian government has vowed to move on the file.
For much of my professional life, I have explored the origins of racism, the retrieval of national historical memory after strategically forgotten crimes against humanity, the role of courtroom justice in bringing accountability to the victims of the worst crimes known to humankind and the importance of simple acknowledgement to the reconciliation process.
In doing so, I have learned the importance of factual precision regarding criminal accusations, and in this respect, I believe the commissioners’ otherwise excellent report was marred by the gratuitous charge that Canada has committed, and continues to commit, genocide against its Indigenous populations. Not cultural genocide, a concept that is broadly accepted today with reference to the attempted obliteration of Indigenous culture in the residential schools, but all-out genocide – without qualification.
In its report the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls has conflated the recent murders of women and girls with the entirety of the Indigenous experience in Canada, past and present, then framed its conclusions under the powerful rubric of genocide, for which both past and present federal governments are held directly responsible.
But these extrapolations are overly broad. The men who killed Indigenous women were not génocidaires set on destroying a group. They were commonplace domestic criminals – murderers and predators who ought not to have been elevated to fit a paradigm.
We forget, at our peril, that genocide is a legal term, not a societal term. It is the worst crime in the lexicon of international law, the apex of “crimes against humanity,” the most powerful criminal designation ever codified. Genocide is a crime whose proper referent is the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (the Genocide Convention) of 1948, and its most important characteristic is intent: “The deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial, religious or national group.” Genocide, as opposed to cultural genocide, is the planned extermination of peoples. It is not, as asserted by the inquiry, “the sum of the social practices, assumptions, and actions detailed within this report.” Genocide (like all crimes) is an act. To lose sight of this fact is to jeopardize the usefulness of one of the most important tools of international criminal law.
In recent years, the abuse of the word genocide has become almost commonplace, almost like a Twitter hashtag, an epithet and, in some places, a propaganda tool. State-controlled television in Russia is a prime (though not unique) illustration; for example, in 2017 both Ukraine and Latvia were accused of planning a “genocide” of minority Russian speakers. One is reminded of Lewis Carroll’s sly observation: “'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said…, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all.’"
The inquiry’s conclusion that Canada is a genocidal state lines up with the distortion of language characterizing much of contemporary political discourse. It may also be an assertion of power, à la Carroll. In the era of Donald Trump, in which insult is normalized, where journalists are characterized as “enemies of the people” and where Canada’s negotiable trade demands are improbably described as a “national security issue,” shock-and-awe language may be seen as a way of propelling one’s words above the din.
That this may be true is suggested by the surprising fact that although "genocide” was the framing concept of the report, many of its defenders have subsequently played down its import.
But words do matter. They matter because they have commonly agreed-to referents and because once they are stripped of these through misuse, we are in Humpty Dumpty land.
I know from experience that the victims of violence and state-sponsored harm burn with the humiliation of generations, that reconciliation is a difficult, incremental process that sometimes looks out of reach and that it is dependent upon mutual respect. In this regard, the inquiry’s report contains important lessons about the need for empathy for those who continue to suffer and for vigilance in opposing stereotyping and racism.
It is my personal observation that non-Indigenous Canadians have been sensitized to Indigenous history in recent years, and that many champion a vision of reconciliation. Whether we get there or not will naturally depend on government action. But it will also depend on the tenor of our shared public discourse.