Genocide in Canada and #idlenomore, Part 2

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.


6 thoughts on “Genocide in Canada and #idlenomore, Part 2

  1. Individuals exist. Cultures and ethnic groups (and ideologies, and “races”) are something individuals do, acts of social performance; they exist because actual living people think they do and find them useful, and for no other reason.(*) A ‘nation’ exists because the people involved think so; if they stop thinking so, it doesn’t.

    In other words, your culture is not like your skin color: your culture is more like your clothes, or your makeup, or your favorite team. You can change your clothes, or mix and match outfits, pretty much as you please.

    A lot of my ancestors spoke Lallans or Gaelic (and a few spoke Beothuk). I don’t, and I don’t wear a kilt either, or consider stealing the neighbors’ livestock and conducting blood feuds the main purpose of life.

    Am I any the worse for it? Do I lack an “identity”?

    Of course not. I have a perfectly good identity; it’s just a different one, because my Scottish ancestors very sensibly decided “sod this for a game of soldiers, we’re tired of getting beaten up and we’re switching to the winning side”.

    Assimilation doesn’t mean -losing- an identity, it means -changing- an identity, and identity is a construct. You can construct it one way and reconstruct it another… like changing your clothes. Your identity is the identity you perform.

    Setting out to assimilate people is the -opposite- of genocide. Genocide is rejection of people by categorizing them; assimilation is -acceptance-. Genocide says “you are essentially different from me/mine and bad so you should die”, assimilation says “you are basically like me, so marry me”.

    (*) about a hundred years ago, a Sicilian woman in the Deep South who’d married a black guy was charged with violating the laws forbidding interracial marriage. The state supreme court judge dismissed the case with the comment that, as everyone knew, Italians weren’t white people, so the law didn’t apply. “Race” is also a construct; it doesn’t correspond to anything objectively, as opposed to socially, real.


    • That is a perfectly coherent articulation of the individualist conception of identity. I’ve already indicated I take a different view of things (the relational conception). But I haven’t presented many reasons for why I find the relational view more compelling than the individualist view, so there is lots of room for us to debate the issue.

      But to take your position entirely on its own terms: would you acknowledge a difference between voluntary and forced assimilation? Is it possible for forced assimilation to be, say, a violation of the individual’s right to cultural self-determination?


    • The extreme individualist view is glossing over important issues. This is most obvious when Stirling says that “you can change your clothes, or mix and match outfits, pretty much as you please.” Of course clothes are part of culture; if I were to run around in Northern Germany with a grass skirt, I’d be is totally out of the prevailing culture, and choosing that makes a lot of statements about me that I wouldn’t wish to make. This limits my choices I could make, and it makes certain aspects of self-expression impossible to combine. Then there are many other types of clothes worn around the world that I couldn’t possibly choose because I never learned about them, or how to wear them. What you do in your life, the choices you make, are modelled on what you were exposed to, what you learned. This is the limit to individualism. Even creativity and originality are social endeavours, framed and enabled by the culture we live in.

      Apart from the obvious argument that cultural diversity is as much an holistically sound goal as biodiversity is, making humanity as a whole more resilient by providing a more varied reservoir of lifestyles that can be employed to cope with changes, losing a cultural heritage can also be hard on people individually. I notice, living in a predominantly Germanic/Christian culture, that older people who have dementia still remember and relate to experiences they had when young. At Christmas, singing these old songs gets through to people who are inaccessible most of the other time. This is possible because our culture has been stable in that respect. If you eradicate a culture, you uproot people, you take from them a sense of belonging and security, and you might make their old age hell – a Kafka-like environment that is completely incomprehensible to them.

      The individual capability to make choices is something I love to affirm, but I realize it is framed by my society and my biography — by the world I live in and the world I grew up with, the culture I live in and the culture I grew up with. What word is there for the process of removing from people the choice about what parts of their culture to perpetuate, through subtle pressure or violence? And even if the word is not appropriate, the outrage at it surely is!


      • Thanks for this comment. I agree with your points. More broadly, I think that culture enables us to become the people we are; there is no individuality a priori of cultural relations. So, as you nicely put it, to have removed from us the choice about what parts of our culture to perpetuate does a violence to our souls. To individualists I would say that such violence constitutes a deep violation of the integrity and self-determination of the individual. After all, even our ability to be “individuals” in the modern sense of that term itself depends on a culture of individualism, on cultural relations that individualize us.


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