In a previous post, I argued that Canadian policies towards Indigenous peoples can be considered genocidal. I presented a very brief outline of the historical factors which support this position. In this post, I delve into the conceptual issues around the meaning of the term ‘genocide’.
Genocide does not necessarily happen through mass murder. Rather, mass murder is only one possible means for committing genocide. If mass murder would be difficult or costly or embarrassing for a perpetrator, and if more subtle means are available, the perpetrator will use the more subtle means. We can understand the history of Canadian treatment of Indigenous groups as a slow, subtle, long-term genocide.
In saying this, I am taking a position different which not all genocide scholars would agree with. The field of genocide studies is divided between those who accept that genocide can include socio-cultural destruction without mass killing, and those who do not. Thus, the second part of the paper which Julia Peristerakis and I co-authored (actually, the first part, although here I am discussing it second) made a conceptual argument for how we might mean by the word ‘genocide’.
Raphael Lemkin Invents the Word “Genocide”
The word genocide was coined in 1944 by a Polish lawyer named Raphael Lemkin, in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. Lemkin had this to say:
Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated 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. The objectives of such a plan would be disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups.
Genocide has two phases: one, destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group; the other, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor. This imposition, in turn, may be made upon the oppressed population which is allowed to remain, or upon the territory alone, after removal of the population and the colonization of the area by the oppressor’s own nationals.
In making these claims, Lemkin operated from the assumption that an ethnic or ‘national’ group has a life of its own, beyond the lives of its individual members. (This assumption was common at the time, and is part of the “primordialist” theory of national identity.) It was this collective life of the group that Lemkin wanted to protect.
The Individualist View: Genocide as Mass Killing
Since the signing of the United Nations Genocide Convention in 1948, many scholars and activists have re-interpreted the concept of genocide to mean only mass murder. There are practical reasons for this: (1) it is easier to get people to agree that mass murder is wrong; (2) genocide is a crime, and it is easier to find individuals personally guilty for mass murder than find individuals personally guilty for broad systemic processes of cultural destruction; and (3) mass murder happens only occasionally, and is often committed by authoritarian governments who subsequently get defeated in war or overthrown by their own people, while the social and cultural destruction of ethnic groups — specifically, Indigenous groups — is being carried out continuously by nations around the world, including some of the most powerful nations on Earth.
There are also conceptual reasons for defining genocide as mass murder. These stem from an individualist idea of what it is to be a person. To simplify, individualism holds that a person’s identity, their inner being, comes primarily from within themselves and not from the group or groups they belong to. Culture, in this view, does not have a life of its own outside the individual; culture is in people’s heads and in their individual actions. Destroying culture might violate a person’s human right to cultural self-determination. But this is not as severe as violating a person’s right to life. In this view, genocide is wrong because it violates an individual’s right to exist at all — and does so not because of anything done by that individual, but because of a group the individual happens to belong to.
The Holist View: Genocide and the Collective Life of a Nation
The opposite view we could call holism, and it says that culture does have a life outside the individual, and it is from culture — not from within themselves — that an individual gets their identity and their selfhood. Thus destroying a culture is a violation of people’s social being. One can destroy someone’s personhood even if they are left physically alive.
The holist view has some problems. In particular, it under-estimates the amount of conflict that is normal within cultures, the extent to which people actively contest and redefine the rules and the meanings of the cultures they belong to. Cultures don’t just evolve organically; they are constructed. In the holist view, it becomes difficult to specify the difference between genocide and normal forms of cultural change.
The Relational View
A third view is the relational view. In this view, a person’s identity and selfhood comes neither from within themselves nor from the group as a whole but from the specific concrete relationships that they involve themselves in, starting from birth. The types of groups we call “nations” or “cultures” or “ethnic groups” are large complex and dynamic networks of relations through which people continuously define and redefine their personal identity and their group identity. Genocide is the violent destruction of one of these networks.
Cultural groups are especially important because different cultures produce different ways of being human in the world, different ways of relating to the world. For instance, the fact that Indigenous groups of the central plains often perceived the buffalo as fellow people, as members of their own extended family, is significant: it expresses a way of relating humans to nonhumans very different from that of European peoples.
Raphael Lemkin wrote:
The world represents only so much culture and intellectual vigor as are created by its component national groups. Essentially the idea of a nation signifies constructive cooperation and a well-developed national psychology. The destruction of a nation, therefore, results in the loss of its future contributions to the world.
One of the reasons for calling the experiences of Indigenous peoples in Canada “genocide”, instead of calling them something less controversial like “oppression” or even “atrocity”, is to draw attention to this loss of culture — and, in the process, to assert that these cultures are valuable.
It also is a way of asserting that people’s collective identity, their membership in a group, is a vital part of who they are, and that it is wrong to use force to take this away.
The Canadian state is using its fiscal and legislative power to take away the means by which Indigenous peoples maintain their collective identity. Idle No More is, among other things, a revolt against this particularly insidious form of violence.