Canada’s MMIWG report spurs debate on the shifting definitions of genocide

Lorelei Williams responds to the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls report.
Lorelei Williams, whose cousin was murdered by serial killer Robert Pickton and whose aunt went missing in 1978, sheds tears while responding to the report on the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.  |  THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

by Andrew Woolford, University of Manitoba


When the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls released its final report, it described the ongoing violence as a Canadian genocide. In the aftermath of the report’s release, many public intellectuals and journalists in Canadian news outlets and others on social media have contested the use of the term genocide.

I am a genocide scholar who has written widely about settler colonial genocide.

Genocide, originally defined near the end of the Second World War in 1944 by Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin and consequently taken up by sociologists, historians, lawyers and others, is for Lemkin “a co-ordinated 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.”

As a sociologist, I’m not interested in adjudicating this case according to an official legal definition of genocide. Rigid legal concepts can interfere with understanding the social nature of group destruction. It can flatten the analysis of group relations. It can serve as a hammer to pound a complicated history into a singular event.

Two women sitting in the audience sadly embrace during the MMIWG report ceremonies.
Two women embrace during ceremonies marking the release of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls report in Gatineau on June 3, 2019. | THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

One genocide is never the same as another, and therefore a static law or a fixed concept of genocide is of little use to protect us from its horrors. Understanding genocide as a process can help Canadians grapple with the ongoing threat faced by Indigenous peoples in Canada and Indigenous women and girls as outlined in the final MMIWG report.

Legal professionals over time have had to adjust their reading of genocide law. Since the Second World War, contesting ideas and debate have brought about changes to how legal scholars and courts interpret genocide. The authors of the genocide supplement for the MMIWG report draw upon these interpretations but also pose new challenges to the laws of genocide.

These questions are necessary because the history of settler colonialism in Canada includes a variety of efforts to remove, assimilate, starve and erase Indigenous nations. When one approach failed, the settler colonial mesh recalibrated.

For example, residential schools mutated into child removals and mass incarceration. Moreover, the strands of the mesh continue to entrap and strangle communities long after the supposed end of any one manifestation of group destruction.

This is the destruction to which the report draws our attention.

United Nations Convention on Genocide

The 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide (UNGC) is the basis for both international and national laws on genocide. The law is the product of a socio-political moment. In the meetings leading up to the convention on genocide, delegates from colonial nations such as South Africa, Canada, the U.S., Sweden and New Zealand voted against inclusion of cultural genocide (Article III) in the genocide convention..

Colonial and masculine assumptions are evident in genocide law, as is the political will of the drafting parties to protect their own nations from accusations of genocide, hence the withdrawal of Article III from the final document.

Despite these beginnings, the law develops as people engage with it, and genocide case law has gradually addressed some of the limitations of the UNGC.

For example, through decisions from bodies such as the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, the groups protected from genocide have been expanded beyond narrow understandings of ethnicity, nationhood, religion and race.

As well, the social death caused by mass rape has been interpreted as genocidal.

The MMIWG final report seeks to bring a grassroots, gendered and Indigenous reading of these laws to the discussion of MMIWG and how Canada’s actions and omissions contributed to their deaths.

This is a valuable contribution and pushes the boundaries of the definition of genocide. Thinking on this topic always needs to be pushed.

Genocide is a transgressive act. It overturns all expectations, violates social norms and continuously mutates to take on new and surprising forms. Different readings and interpretations of genocide are needed to truly confront the many evolving methods of group destruction.

BC MLA Melanie Mark and her daughter listen as Indigenous women and allies respond to the MMIWG report.
British Columbia Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Training Melanie Mark, B.C.‘s first female First Nations MLA, and her daughter Makayla, 8, listen as Indigenous women and allies respond to the report on the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, in Vancouver, June 3, 2019. | THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Genocide as a process

Many genocide scholars view genocide as a process rather than an event. In my book, This Benevolent Experiment: Indigenous Boarding Schools, Genocide, and Redress in Canada and the United States I focus on “cultural genocide,” though I treat cultural genocide as one technique of genocide rather than as a separate and distinct type.

I chart the development of Indigenous residential and boarding schools in North America and highlight the settler colonial practice of attempting to assimilate children through education.

Residential schools can be seen as situated within a series of nets that operated on all levels in society, including at the upper echelons of society among elite social influencers, and also through government and missionary institutions as well as individual teachers, principals and communities. There was a complex coordination of activities, habits, ideologies, motives and intents that were generally directed toward eliminating Indigenous peoples as distinct peoples.

These layers of destructive action can be likened to a settler colonial mesh constructed to entrap Indigenous peoples within an assimilative project. But the mesh is prone to snags and tears allowing for the emergence of resistance and subversion. Indigenous people were not passive; parents refused to send their children, children ran away and communities sometimes preserved their cultures when conditions allowed.

Impact on group destruction

The MMIWG report is about the results of such processes and their effects on community and family relationships: harmful relations established through settler colonialism, their impact on intimate and everyday group relations and the possibility of better relations in the future.

It demands more of genocide law, and more from Canadian society, to address the intersecting settler colonial and hetero-patriarchal wrongs that have led to the injustice of MMIWG.

Rather than staunchly defend a narrow conception of genocide, it is time to demand this concept to do what it was intended to do: enable human thriving through respectful collective relations.

Andrew Woolford, Professor, University of Manitoba


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Canadian Senate Blues

They call it “the Red Chamber” but it sure seems like Canadians have been singing the Senate Blues for most of my life.

In the dying days of the Harper Government, the misadventures of Senator Mike Duffy proved to be a major embarrassment for the Canadian Government.  By the time the dust settled, Duffy had resigned from the Conservative Caucus, the criminal charges against him were dropped, and Duffy, now an un-aligned independent, resumed his seat as Senator for PEI (even though he still doesn’t actually seem to live there). Then Prime Minister Stephen Harper was certainly mixed up in Mr. Duffy’s case, but was never properly investigated or held to account.

But Duffy’s case was just the tip of the iceberg. The Auditor General report identified thirty (THIRTY!) past and present Canadian senators or former senators as having “made inappropriate or ineligible expense claims.”  In addition to being implicated in the expense scandal, 39 year old Senator Patrick Brazeau had a host of still unresolved other problems.   About a year ago Press Progress shared an Angus Reid Opinion Poll that suggested only 6% of Canadians were happy with the Senate as is.

Senate Thrones

Real or Imagined?

Canada’s new Trudeau Government had ostentatiously promised, ahem, real change.

And yet, once again, there are Senators making news in ways that reflect very poorly on Canada’s Upper House.

Interim Conservative Party Leader Rona Ambrose has called for the resignation of Stephen Harper appointee Senator Don Meredith after Senate Ethics Officer Lyse Ricard’s investigation exposed his inappropriate sexual relationship with a teen.

Senator Meredith has made it abundantly clear he has no intention of going quietly, even though the other Senators are determined to expel Don Meredith after his relationship with teenage girl.

It has become increasingly clear that a code of conduct that hopes miscreants will quietly resign in the face of exposure is simply not sufficient. Real change requires a framework that allows for summary suspensions of Senators (and MPs) accused of impropriety and/or lawbreaking, removing them from office if such charges proven. Our Westminster System of government was designed for a feudal society that allowed the nobility to get away with a great deal.  But in a society that aspires to citizen equality there is no place for such abuses of power.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, now we learn Senator Lynn Beyak, member of the Senate’s Standing Committee on Aboriginal Peoples  has spoken up in defence of the “abundance of good” in Residential Schools.

I speak partly for the record, but mostly in memory of the kindly and well-intentioned men and women and their descendants — perhaps some of us here in this chamber — whose remarkable works, good deeds and historical tales in the residential schools go unacknowledged for the most part and are overshadowed by negative reports. Obviously, the negative issues must be addressed, but it is unfortunate that they are sometimes magnified and considered more newsworthy than the abundance of good.

Honourable Lynn Beyak, Senate Debates: Increasing Over-representation of Indigenous Women in Canadian Prisons

As might be expected, Senator Beyak’s attitude has not gone over well.  CBC reports Senator’s residential school comment ‘hurts the integrity of the Canadian system,’ survivor says.  The Liberal Indigenous Caucus issued a statement asking Senator Beyak to “resign from the Senate as her views are inconsistent with the spirit of reconciliation that is required in both chambers of Parliament.”  Committee Chair Senator Lillian Eva Dyck agrees Senator Bayek’s should resign after her ill-informed and insensitive comments.

Even the United Church had some strong words for the Hon. Ms. Beyak:

“Indigenous peoples and organizations have responded to Senator Beyak’s comments. As one of the parties responsible for the operation of residential schools, The United Church of Canada also feels a responsibility to respond.

“Senator Beyak spoke of the “good intentions” behind the residential schools system. Thirty years ago, The United Church of Canada apologized to First Nations Peoples for our role in colonization and the destruction of their cultures and spiritualties. In the process of preparing, delivering, and attempting to live out that Apology, we have learned that “good intentions” are never enough, and that to offer such words in explanation is damaging and hurtful.

“The United Church of Canada participated in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission not just as part of a legal agreement but also as part of a moral and ethical commitment to understand the impact of our role in the residential schools system, to atone for it, and to participate in healing and building of a new relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada.”

— Moderator: Senator Beyak’s Comments on Residential Schools

Not everyone is right for every job, and it’s pretty clear to everyone but Senator Beyak that she is not a good fit for the Senate of Canada.  Again, there doesn’t seem to be any provision to remove her in spite of the growing outcry.  The longer this goes on, the worse the Senate, and, indeed the Government of Canada looks.

Canadians need a government capable of governing itself with decorum and accountability.

As often happens in Canada’s unrepresentative democracy, there is a Petition:

SIGN THE PETITION:
We demand the resignation of Senator Lynn Beyak and issuance of a formal apology

It seems Canada’s unfair First Past The Post electoral system continues to engender a political culture of shameless entitlement even (especially?) in our un-elected Senate. A democratic government that fails to answer to its citizens is seriously dysfunctional.


Image Credits

Senate photos by Makaristos have been dedicated to the public domain.  Click the images to find the originals on Wikimedia Commons.