Sunday, October 06, 2019

Debating genocide history at the LRC

The October Literary Review of Canada has a lot of election commentary. It   also has substantial coverage of indigenous issues, notably a debate on the word genocide.

I much admire the historians Donald Smith and J.R. Miller for their groundbreaking work over several decades introducing the profession and the public to indigenous history, residential school matters, treaties, and much more. But their essay, "No Genocide," is not their best work. Indeed, they get their heads handed to them by indigenous judge and scholar Harry S. Laforme in his essay "Yes, Genocide".

Smith and Miller limit genocide to the effort to kill a people, rooting that definition in the United Nations Genocide Convention of 1948. They call the 1848 1948 definition "the only definition that permits productive debate," and wave away "cultural genocide" as a recent blurring of firm lines. Canada wanted to assimilate indigenous peoples, they argue, hence genocide does not apply. "If Canada had wanted to destroy them, it would not have devoted so much to trying to turn them into Euro-Canadians....  Assimilation should not be confused with or equated to genocide.'

But Justice Laforme demonstrates what Smith and Miller do not address: the 1948 convention was intended also to outlaw cultural genocide, "the deliberate suppression or elimination of a culture." Only the opposition of the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand kept that prohibition out of the Convention in 1948. The concept returned in the 2007 UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, to which Canada adhered in 2016: "Indigenous peoples and individuals have the right not to be subject to forced assimilation."  Assimilation is a form of the legal definition, in other words. Cultural genocide cannot be ignored. LaForme concludes:
This debate matters, but it's over. Those colonial descendants -- and any others -- who continue to argue that Canada's relationship with Indigenous peoples has not been one of 'cultural genocide' either favour tepid language or are ignoring the truth. 
It's a good and useful discussion.  LaForme wins.
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