As I write this, Idle No More is making headlines around the world, and perhaps making history.
The movement challenges the Harper government’s aggressive expansion of neoliberal austerity. It also challenges the colonial authority over Indigenous peoples that the Canadian state simultaneously exercises and denies it has. The movement’s demand is simple: that the Canadian government meet and negotiate in good faith with Indigenous leaders. These leaders have a range of issues they want addressed, from treaty rights to self-governance to conditions on reserves.
Idle No More is different from other grassroots social movements that have emerged in Canada in recent years. Movements like Occupy and the Québec Student Strike have opposed government policies that strip public services and increase social inequality in Canada. Idle No More does this, but it goes by challenging the colonial authority of the Canadian state over Indigenous peoples. In doing this, Idle No More is the latest expression of the ongoing Indigenous resistance to genocide.
Julia Peristerakis and I have recently written an academic article on “Genocide in Canada”, in which we argue that the term genocide — without qualification — applies to the historical experiences of Indigenous peoples in the territory that is now under the dominion of the state of Canada. This argument has two main parts, one historical and the other conceptual. I will save the conceptual part for another post.
The historical argument goes like this: in the course of the colonization of Canada, Indigenous societies have been subject to destructive forces that have attacked every major social institution necessary for the health and survival of those societies. From the point of view of European ways of thinking about politics and society, these attacks can be organized into six categories:
- Destruction of political institutions
- The colonial state stripped Indigenous groups of their ability to govern themselves according to the political institutions and traditions that they themselves had developed, and imposed its own direct political control over most aspects of Indigenous people’s lives.
- Destruction of economic livelihood
- The process of settling Canada involved using force or the threat of force to remove Indigenous peoples from the land from which they produced food and all of the other necessities of life. This violated the spiritual relationship which Indigenous peoples had with their lands. It also left those groups in a condition of extreme poverty and dependence.
- Vital infrastructure like public education, housing, and even water is severely under-funded on many reserves, while Canada goes to great lengths to give itself control over whatever natural resources happen to be on reserve lands.
- Indigenous people have sometimes been banned by law from participating in aspects of the settler economy, and even without legislative discrimination Indigenous people looking for work have faced widespread informal discrimination.
- Destruction of language, arts, and spiritual practices —
- For several decades in the twentieth century, Indigenous dances and most religious ceremonies were banned by law. This includes bans on the potlatch practices of west coast groups and confiscation of masks and other icons.
- Students of the Indian Residential Schools, for generation after generation, were banned from speaking their native languages or practicing any kind of traditional spirituality, were forced to adopt Western clothing and hairstyle, and in other ways were required to abandon all of their native cultural practices in favour of Western modes of being.
- Destruction of families
- The most well-recognized form of this was the Indian Residential School system, in which children were taken from their parents and communities — often by force or deception — and confined to the residential schools for years while given very minimal contact with their parents.
- Indigenous children have also been removed from their families by the Canadian child welfare system. An estimated 20,000 Indigenous children were taken from their families as part of the “60s Scoop” (which actually lasted into the 1980s).
- Indigenous children continue to be over-represented among children removed from their family homes by child welfare authorities today.
- Destruction of gender roles
- Colonization has brought about a loss of power and status for women in Indigenous societies, which before colonization were generally more egalitarian than their European counterparts. This reduction in status has made Indigenous women among the most vulnerable in Canada to poverty and to physical and sexual violence.
- Colonization also meant the suppression of tolerance for two-spirited people and the imposition of European homophobia on Indigenous cultures.
- Physical destruction
- In addition to their destructive effects on ability of Indigenous groups to have a shared community life and a shared identity, these types of measures also harm the health and the chance of physical survival for individual Indigenous persons. Higher than average rates of illness, addictions, abuse, and suicide among Indigenous individuals can be linked to the problems stemming from the destruction of the social institutions I have described above.
(This is only a very brief summary of a very long and complex history; to keep my list short enough to read, I have left out a lot.)
Taken on its own, any one of these measures — loss of self-government, for example, or loss of land — would not constitute genocide. It is their combined and cumulative effect that is genocidal. To survive, a cultural group needs political, economic, cultural, familial, and gender institutions, among others. Without these institutions, the relationships that hold the group together, that give it its distinct identity, can no longer be maintained. Without a common identity, the group ceases to be a group.
Genocide is exactly this: the use of violence to dissolve the shared life and shared identity that holds an ethnic group together. This violence can be naked and immediate, as in the use of soldiers to remove people from their lands, for instance. Or it can take a slower, more indirect, but equally effective form of legislative and fiscal measures which combine to destroy a group’s ability to reproduce its shared life.
I do not take it on myself to say that genocide is the best word for what has happened to Indigenous peoples in Canada. The word is fraught with controversy and it would be wrong for a non-Indigenous scholar to distract from what Idle No More is doing by throwing this controversy into the mix. But, as a genocide scholar, I believe the word can be meaningfully applied.
From this perspective the participants in Idle No More are fighting for more than just an improved quality of life for Indigenous peoples. They are fighting for survival.