THE Canadian Museum for Human Rights will not use the word "genocide" to describe Canada's aboriginal policies during the last century, including the residential schools system and forced relocations.
That's despite a growing academic consensus Canada did indeed commit genocide, and repeated calls by aboriginal leaders -- including, most recently, Phil Fontaine -- for the federal government to recognize its role in the destruction of indigenous culture and institutions.
"It's a shame. I think the museum needs to be a leader, not a follower on this," said University of Manitoba Prof. Adam Muller, a genocide expert. "You look at colonial activity in the Americas and it seems clear to me, at the end of the day, they were trying to destroy a group and way of life."
Those familiar with the museum's plans to tackle indigenous issues understood the word would be included in its exhibits. But after what spokeswoman Maureen Fitzhenry said was extensive internal debate and an ongoing process of revision, the museum's senior staff decided not to use the word. The decision was made about a month ago.
Fitzhenry said the museum is not a court or government -- the two bodies that have traditionally decided what counts as a genocide. And she said academic research is still evolving.
"We don't want to be seen as advocating or involving ourself in a debate that is still playing out," said Fitzhenry.
She also said that, as a Crown corporation, it's important the museum's terminology align with that of the federal government, which has not recognized Canada's aboriginal policies as a genocide.
Parliament recognizes five official genocides -- the Holocaust, the Holodomor, the Armenian genocide and the atrocities in Rwanda and the Bosnian town of Srebrenica.
In a recent column in the Toronto Star, former national grand chief Phil Fontaine called on Canada to add a sixth to the list, especially in light of recent revelations Ottawa conducted nutritional experiments on malnourished First Nations adults and children in the 1940s and '50s.
"It is time for Canadians to face the sad truth. Canada engaged in a deliberate policy of attempted genocide against First Nations people," wrote Fontaine, originally from Sagkeeng First Nation. "And the starvation experiments were only the first of a litany of similar such attempts to control, delegitimize and, yes, even annihilate First Nations to suit the needs of a growing dominion."
University of Manitoba scholars -- some of whom are organizing an international conference on indigenous genocide in Winnipeg next year -- say there is little academic debate left over whether the word "genocide" applies to Canada's Indian policies.
Instead, scholars are arguing about how it happened. And the debate has moved beyond a legal definition of genocide that centres on a government's clear intent and on the physical extermination of one group. Broader, more cultural definitions of genocide, which look at how language, institutions, religion and family ties were eradicated, are now widely accepted.
"What matters in genocide is not that it's a lot of killing," said University of Manitoba sociology Prof. Andrew Woolford. "What matters is that it's an assault against a group, on their ability to persist as a group."
Underlying the genocide question are persistent allegations -- some made by former museum staff -- the CMHR's federally appointed board routinely interferes in content decisions in an effort to tell more "positive," politically palatable stories.
Fitzhenry said the decision to avoid the word "genocide" was made by senior staff, not the board.
She said the museum will not shy away from exploring Canada's colonial legacy, including the epidemic of missing and slain aboriginal women, the disastrous relocation of Manitoba's Sayisi Dene people, land and treaty rights and residential schools.
Indigenous history will be tackled throughout the museum's 11 galleries.
"We're committed to dealing with Canada's human rights history in an unblinking way," Fitzhenry said.
Is it reasonable a museum for human rights hesitates to call Canada’s treatment of First Nations people a genocide? Join the conversation in the comments below.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 26, 2013 B1
Your July 26 2013 story CMHR rejects 'genocide' for native policies errs in its assertion that the Canadian Museum for Human Rights is not using the word "genocide" in exhibits dealing with Canada's treatment of aboriginal people.
We have chosen, at present, not to use the word "genocide" in the title for one such exhibit, but will be using the term in the exhibit itself when describing community efforts for this recognition. Historical fact and emerging information will be presented to help visitors reach their own conclusions.
Public discussion about the use of the term "genocide" in the context of the aboriginal experience in Canada provides an excellent opportunity to raise awareness about the nature of human rights violations in our own backyard. The CMHR, as a venue for education, reflection and dialogue, strongly supports and encourages this conversation.
In the museum, we will examine the gross and systemic human rights violation of indigenous people. This will include information about the efforts of the aboriginal community, and others, to gain recognition of these violations as genocide -- and we will use that word. We will look at the ways this recognition can occur when people combat denial and work to break the silence surrounding such horrific abuses. In one such exhibit, residential schools will serve as the recognizable entry point for visitors.
While a museum does not have the power to make declarations of genocide, we can certainly encourage -- through ongoing partnership with the indigenous community itself -- an honest examination of Canada's human rights history, in hopes that respect and reconciliation will prevail.STUART MURRAY
Canada has a dark history -- one which begins long before Confederation in 1867. The state of Canada, which was previously a British colony, was only made possible by the theft of Indigenous lands and resources, and the genocide of Indigenous peoples. While some government officials will admit that some of their laws and policies may have resulted in assimilation, you will never hear any of them speak of their elimination policies which resulted in genocide.
What is the difference between assimilation and elimination? Assimilation is when one group (usually the colonizing settler government) tries to force another group (Indigenous peoples) to abandon their culture, language, values, traditions, practices and beliefs for those of the colonizer. Policies like residential schools, resulted in the disruption and loss of Indigenous language and culture. This can and has resulted in inter-generational trauma in many Indigenous families, communities and Nations.
Elimination policies are much more direct. The scalping bounties issued in the Atlantic region for the scalps of Mi'kmaw men, women and children were meant to physically eliminate Mi'kmaw peoples. The distribution of smallpox blankets to Indigenous peoples were meant to physically eliminate Indigenous peoples through the p
urposeful spread of a deadly disease. Similarly, the forced sterilization of Indigenous women in Canada without their knowledge and consent was also meant to eliminate any future population of Indigenous peoples. These are what have been called elimination policies.
Some will debate whether the residential school policy was a policy of assimilation or elimination, but I argue that it was both. The physical abuse for practicing one's culture is a form of forced assimilation; whereas the starvation, torture and medical experiments conducted on the children which resulted in upwards of 40% of the children dying, is elimination.
Whether it is assimilation or elimination, all of the acts fit under the definition of genocide as noted in the UN Convention Against Genocide.
Article 2 In the present Convention, 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:
- (a) Killing members of the group;
- (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
- (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
- (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
- (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
If you look at any of the criteria, Canada has committed acts under each which can be defined as genocide. The colonizing governments have:
(a) purposely killed Indigenous peoples (smallpox blankets, residential schools, scalping bounties, starlight tours);
(b) have caused serious bodily harm (residential school torture, deaths and beatings in police custody, medical experiments in residential schools and in First Nation communities);
(c) deliberately inflicted conditions meant to bring about death and illness (chronic under-funding of essential human needs like water, sanitation, housing, and food);
(d) prevented births (forced sterilization of Indigenous women);
(e) transferred children our of Indigenous communities (residential schools, massive 60's scoop where kids taken and adopted into non-Indigenous families, current policy of child apprehensions);
Thus, if the new Canadian Museum for Human Rights will not use the term genocide to describe what Canada has done to Indigenous peoples in Canada, then its own credibility will be called into question. A few staff members at the museum do not have the right to decide how history will be presented. The grisly facts about Canada's treatment of Indigenous peoples is something that must be recognized and accepted if there is any hope of moving forward in a good way or at least in a way which does not repeat the atrocities of the past.
One does not have to look too far to find the real reason why the museum will not use the word genocide -- it is a Crown corporation, i.e., an arm of the government. The museum staff are quoted as saying: "as a Crown corporation, it's important the museum's terminology align with that of the federal government." This Harper government's modus operandi is to control information, silence opposition and present propaganda instead of open, accountable fact-based reports.
While the museum appears to be relying on the fact that Canada has refused to acknowledge that its policies against Indigenous peoples were genocide, they should also note that those governments and politicians who have committed genocide in other parts of the world never admitted their illegal activity either. Canada will never admit wrong-doing unless and until it is brought to justice. Even Canada's watered-down residential schools apology was quickly followed by a denial that any cultural genocide took place.
There is little point in even opening this museum if its only purpose is to act as a propaganda machine for the federal government. We can expect little more than government-approved pictures, displays, and histories if even the terminology is going to be censored. Why waste all that money, when one could simply log on to the Harper government website and read the propaganda directly?
The continued denial of genocide in Canada, against the weight of much academic research and evidence, shows that Canada (the government) has no real interest in moving forward in a respectful relationship with Indigenous peoples. In fact, all of Harper's actions to date indicate a desire to go back in time and resurrect old assimilation policies. Perhaps this is the real reason why Harper does not want the museum to educate Canadians about the truth?