First Nations

What’s in a Word?

Hymie Rubenstein
June 17, 2019
Precision of language is critical in government documents. Take the report on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), which claimed “Indigenous women and girls now make up almost 25 percent of homicide victims.” Turns out the Statistics Canada report on which this claim was based indicates 25 percent of female homicide victims were Indigenous women, a much smaller number. If the MMIW report’s authors can’t even transcribe a simple government statistic, what business have they bandying about the charge of “genocide”? Hymie Rubinstein looks at historical examples of real genocides, reminding us that the abuse of language has consequences.
First Nations

What’s in a Word?

Hymie Rubenstein
June 17, 2019
Precision of language is critical in government documents. Take the report on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), which claimed “Indigenous women and girls now make up almost 25 percent of homicide victims.” Turns out the Statistics Canada report on which this claim was based indicates 25 percent of female homicide victims were Indigenous women, a much smaller number. If the MMIW report’s authors can’t even transcribe a simple government statistic, what business have they bandying about the charge of “genocide”? Hymie Rubinstein looks at historical examples of real genocides, reminding us that the abuse of language has consequences.
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The year was 1994. The place was a little-known Central African country called Rwanda. Goaded by months of propaganda that denounced their enemies as cockroaches, the country’s Hutu army units, militias and packs of machete-armed civilians hunted, herded and swept through their country’s Tutsi minority. Most of the victims were killed in their own communities, often by their neighbors. Hutu gangs searched out victims hiding in churches and school buildings.

In less than four months, an estimated 500,000 to 1,000,000 Rwandans were killed, including about 70 percent of the Tutsi population, and 250,000 to 500,000 women were raped. All of this took place night and day in public view as rivers ran red with blood, body parts lay scattered like cordwood, and churches were torched crammed with terrified civilians. The “civilized” world, represented by the United Nations, did almost nothing. An army of Tutsi exiles that had invaded from neighbouring Uganda as soon as the killings started eventually overthrew the Hutu regime and expelled its army.

A Rwandan genocide survivor looks upon a mass grave outside Kigali in 1994.
A Rwandan genocide survivor looks upon a mass grave outside Kigali in 1994.

Fast forward to June 3, 2019. The place is a “Peaceable Kingdom” called Canada. Our very own alleged genocide is painfully and emotionally documented in the Final Report of the government-sponsored and funded National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG). The report minces no words when it claims there exists in Canada – note the present tense – “a race-based genocide of Indigenous Peoples…empowered by colonial structures…leading directly to the current increased rates of violence, death, and suicide in Indigenous populations.”

Marion Buller, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls
Marion Buller, chief commissioner of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

The chief commissioner of the National Inquiry is Marion Buller, a B.C. Provincial Court judge, former president of the Indigenous Bar Association and a member of the Mistawasis First Nation. She wrote in her opening comments that the report is really about, “deliberate race, identity, and gender-based genocide.” Buller declared that, “The violence against Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people is a national tragedy of epic proportions.”

A new definition…and our prime minister dives into hot water

The Final Report declares that its use of “genocide”, which occurs no fewer than 72 times in its first volume alone, is in keeping with the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. This is the gold standard for identifying this heinous crime against humanity wherever it might occur. Article 2 of the UN Convention defines genocide as:

“… 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.”

The Inquiry’s Final Report is adamant, however, that genocide describes the treatment of Indigenous people, including its current murdered or missing women (some of whom may also have been murdered). If true, can we expect the country and its leaders to be formally charged with genocide by some national or foreign tribunal, as were the leaders of the Rwanda genocide and others like it? Could Prime Minister Justin Trudeau be indicted for a crime against humanity because the Final Report states that the genocide is not only historical but “continues on an ongoing basis”? (The authors’ tortured language hints at the quality of their logic.)

This is not as far-fetched as it sounds, for the process has already started. The day the report was released, Christina “Christia” Freeland, Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, received a letter from the Organization of American States’ (OAS) Secretary-General, Luis Almagro, “communicat[ing] deepest consternation regarding the existence of evidence of genocide against Indigenous women and girls in your country” and calling upon Canada to agree to the creation of a panel to probe that allegation.

The Prime Minister himself helped get Canada into this conundrum through his weak-willed response to the report. “I have acknowledged that I accept the findings of the report, and the issue that we have is that people are getting wrapped up in debates over a very important and powerful term,” Trudeau stated. “As I’ve said, we accept the finding that this was genocide.”

History tells a different story

The Final Report’s accusations and Trudeau’s confession – recounted as gospel truth by media around the world – caused shockwaves of disbelief and denial in Canada. Apart from the damage to our global reputation, the charge, if false, would desecrate the memories of the victims of true genocides. It also threatens to mar the countless individual interactions and relations of virtually any non-Indigenous Canadian with Indigenous people.

It is imperative, then, to ask whether there is any legal, moral or factual basis for the assertion. On its face, there isn’t, since none of the UN Convention’s features seem to readily apply to the murder or disappearance of 1,200 or so Indigenous women and girls since 1980. The independent murders of Indigenous females by numerous unconnected individuals, acting on their own, were certainly not “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part” a particular racial or ethnic group through the coordinated efforts of some other racial or ethnic group. Nor do the organization, causes, and consequences of these murders look like they have anything in common with the genocides officially recognized by the civilized world, including the Government of Canada: the Holocaust, the Holodomor genocide, the Armenian genocide, and the Rwandan genocide, as well as several others.

Highway of tears
Highway of Tears: A 720 kilometre stretch of highway between Prince George and Prince Rupert, British Columbia, which has been an area of many murders and disappearances.

The Report stresses that not all genocides are the same. The Rwandan genocide and the Holocaust, for example, could hardly be more different in key respects. The latter took place in numerous Nazi-occupied European countries as well as in Germany. It stretched over at least four long years from 1941 to 1945 (the Holocaust Memorial organization dates its commencement as the day in 1933 when Hitler came to power). It was held in secret to avoid outraging the rest of the world and, perhaps, limit opposition within Germany. It was minutely organized by the Nazi government, the SS, Gestapo, and other Nazi units. It employed multiple killing methods, ranging from mass shootings to medical experiments to the use of gas chambers. It murdered far more victims, including over six million Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and other “undesirables”. And it was part of a larger extermination project that would take 14 million lives.

Despite the many differences and the varying definitions of genocide, there is one necessary and sufficient feature that distinguishes a genuine genocide: that the murder of members of another group be deliberate, systematic and organized, as opposed to coincidental, unconnected and uncoordinated. This is why the United Nations General Assembly resolved in 1946 that, “Genocide is a denial of the right of existence of entire human groups, as homicide is the denial of the right to live of individual human beings.” Translation: A lot of random murders, however heart-breaking and outrageous they may be, do not add up to a genocide.

Legal definitions be damned

Aboriginal activists and their supporters have chosen to ignore this crucial distinction. Niigaan Sinclair, an Indigenous professor in the Native Studies Department at the University of Manitoba, has opined that, “The epidemic of violence Indigenous women and girls have experienced, and continue to endure, is a national emergency.”

Others chimed in as well. “As a sociologist, I’m not interested in adjudicating this case according to an official legal definition of genocide,” wrote Andrew Woolford, a professor and self-described genocide scholar at the University of Manitoba, in a column for the Winnipeg Free Press. Reinventing the accepted definition of genocide is necessary, Woolford argued, 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.” If you see an entire history as a linked web of genocidal actions and intentions, as Woolford appears to, then clearly anything bad that happens to Indigenous persons is another instance and further evidence of genocide. Woolford’s theory appears to be both self-proving and logically unfalsifiable.

Irwin Cotler, former Attorney-General of Canada and head of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, summarized the issue far more succinctly and persuasively in an article on CBC News: “If we say everything is a genocide, then nothing is a genocide.”

Niigaan Sinclair, Andrew Woolford, and Irwin Cotler
Indigenous and Human rights scholars (l-r) Niigaan Sinclair, Andrew Woolford, and Irwin Cotler.

What do the facts say?

As immeasurably tragic as every single murder is, the numbers in question are orders of magnitude smaller than any genocide ever documented. Even combining missing and murdered women inflates the toll because 14 percent of the total comprises missing persons, many of whom are eventually located alive. This reduces the estimated murders to 32 per year between 1980 and 2012, as determined by two RCMP reports. This, in turn, yields an annual Indigenous female murder rate of 5 per 100,000 during the period in question. By way of comparison, Honduras has 12 times this murder rate and an Indigenous population proportionately twice as large as Canada’s but has never been accused of genocide. These data simply do not support the use of words like “epidemic” or “emergency” when compared to real genocides.

Rather than being an inter-group form of violence, the evidence from Canada also shows that the murder of Aboriginal females is largely confined to the Indigenous community itself. RCMP statistics reveal that 70-90 percent of murders are committed by Indigenous men who knew their victims; 72 percent of Indigenous women are murdered in their homes; and very few women in the sex trade, Indigenous or otherwise, are murdered by their clients. Contrary to urban mythology based on the vile Robert Pickton saga, the RCMP reports conclude that, “… it would be inappropriate to suggest any significant difference in the prevalence of sex trade workers among Aboriginal female homicide victims as compared to non-Aboriginal female homicide victims.”

Laurie Odijick Rubenstein
Laurie Odijick holds a picture of her daughter, Maisy, who disappeared in 2008.

According to the same RCMP findings, of the 20,313 national homicides between 1980 and 2012, 5 percent of victims were Indigenous women. This is, admittedly, several times as high as the murder rate for non-Aboriginal women. Still, during the same period, Indigenous men represented at least 70 percent of murdered or missing Aboriginal persons. On its face, it seems strange that an inquiry into the murder of Indigenous Canadians would deliberately exclude male victims.

Did the Inquiry marginalize these men because Indigenous males are the main killers of Indigenous females? Was misandry behind the inquiry’s call for first-degree (premeditated) murder charges to be levelled against accused killers of Indigenous women, even in circumstances suggesting second-degree charges, i.e., crimes of passion or rage? This is the most common category of Indigenous domestic murder. Overall, the data suggest the MMIWG Inquiry’s formation privileged the murder and disappearance of Indigenous females over males.

Russ Girling TC Energy Indigenous relations Canada Rubenstein
Russ Girling, President and CEO of TC Energy Corp., meets with Indigenous workers on a project.

Further, blaming colonial and post-colonial policies for the murdered and missing females, and elevating the phenomenon into “genocide,” is questionable because, by and large, Indigenous activists have fought to strengthen or refine most of the traditional colonial and post-colonial features of their relationship with the Crown. Prominent examples include the Royal Proclamation of 1763, the establishment of reserves (now called First Nations), the Indian Act, Constitutional recognition, untold billions of dollars of special programmes and funding reserved for Indigenous people, and two federal agencies devoted to Indigenous issues. In other words, Indigenous leaders themselves have not generally sought to decouple their people, their lives and their communities from what Woolford calls the “mesh” of colonial Canada, but have sought to benefit from and build upon the relationship. This, too, is unlike any genocide in history. The Inquiry’s report also either denies or ignores that the post-contact European treatment of Canada’s first people involved neither conquest by warfare nor slavery, ethnic cleansing, total assimilation, nor tribute extraction.

Every murder is an outrage, and the murder and disappearance of some 1,200 Indigenous women and children is undeniably a tragedy. Sadly, however, it is shared with non-Aboriginals suffering from similar domestic pathologies including broken homes, negligent parenting, family trauma, physical and emotional abuse, substance addiction, joblessness, and the hopelessness of inter-generational welfare dependence.

From stagnant population pre-contact to a century-long open-ended baby boom

The vast area that would become Canada was remarkably unproductive in terms of population growth in the pre-contact period, compared to many other regions of the world. The Indigenous settlers had at least 15,000 years to populate the northern half of the continent, but on the eve of European settlement there were still only between 150,000 and 500,000 Indigenous people in Canada, or at most one person per 20 square kilometres. Low population numbers and density were a product of stone-age technology and chronic inter-tribal warfare on levels that make the post-contact period look like a model of mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and abundant reconciliation.

There is no denying that Western infectious diseases brought death to tens of thousands of susceptible Indigenous people in the early post-contact period. This is a human tragedy of epic proportions (although it pales by comparison to the Black Death, which killed an estimated 75 million to 200 million people in Eurasia between 1346 and 1353). Still, the Indigenous population began to recover quickly from the beginning of the 20th century, and today is Canada’s fastest-growing demographic cohort. This is largely due to the miracle of modern Western medicine, a higher birth rate, and the Canadian welfare state.

In 2016 Canada had 1.7 million Indigenous people, accounting for some 5 percent of the total population. This was up from around 4 percent in 2006 and 3 percent in 1996, even as Canada’s population was growing overall. Since 2006, Canada’s Indigenous population has increased by about 43 percent – more than four times the growth rate of the non-Indigenous population over the same period. According to Statistics Canada’s population projections, “In the next two decades, the Aboriginal population is likely to exceed 2.5 million persons.”

Indigenous population growth Canada Rubenstein
As opposed to mass deaths, Indigenous peoples in Canada are experiencing population growth.

Some genocide. No wonder the murder of Canada’s Indigenous women and girls is being called a “slow genocide”. Or, as even Chief Commissioner Buller said, “The type of genocide we have in Canada is…death by a million paper cuts for generations.” A better label might be “accidental genocide”, but this would still be nonsensical since genocide by definition is deliberate. And no genocide ever recorded has coincided with a population explosion in the targeted group.

It’s a sad fact that Canada’s treatment of Indigenous people included the unfortunate and unjustified period of legislated racial segregation for treaty Indians between 1885 and 1951, as well as other small and large injustices from the first contact to the present. But the European settlement of northern North America, starting in 1535, was vastly less violent than the Spanish Conquest of Central and South America and numerous other colonisations. It led to permanent pacification – including the abolition of endemic tribal warfare and the voluntary signing of treaties. Following this, huge sums of money were spent since Confederation in 1867 to enhance the life-chances and physical wellbeing of Indigenous peoples, along with legislation, Constitutional provisions and numerous court rulings which have defined, enhanced, and preserved Indigenous special rights and privileges. Taken together, this looks more like anti-genocide.

What is the objective?

To dodge these inconvenient facts, radical genocide scholars, influenced by both anti-scientific post-modernism and person-centred victimology studies, have so expanded the notion of genocide as to include any real or alleged action that its presumed targets claim qualify as such. This approach is clear from the primacy the inquiry gave to the unverified and unimpeached (i.e., not cross-examined) evidence that was presented. As the report states:

“Family members and survivors of violence shared their testimony, or ‘truths,’ at Community Hearings…[A]ll of the rights violations that the National Inquiry heard about were also related to what those who shared their stories perceived as a targeted war of genocide perpetuated against Indigenous Peoples…These violations [revealed by the ‘truths’] amount to nothing less than the deliberate, often covert campaign of genocide against Indigenous women…”

Translation: Even if the fate of the female Indigenous victims does not come close to genocide according to any accepted and provable meaning, if their families claim otherwise, this “truth” should be accepted.

This virtually unlimited scope may be why Sinclair, son of Senator Murray Sinclair, chairman of the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s study of the Indian Residential Schools, felt able to debase, dilute, and stretch the genocide label. He stated that, “making people dress or wear their hair a certain way, labelling them with names, or unjustly and forcibly controlling their movements are all instances of genocide.” This is unspeakably disrespectful to Tutsi, Jewish, Armenian and other victims and survivors of mass slaughter. And, come to think of it, the first two elements of Sinclair’s description cover an ordinary day at work for a flight attendant, restaurant server and countless other occupations.

Scenes of the Holocaust and Armenian Genocide Rubenstein
Scenes of the Holocaust and Armenian Genocide.

There is another side to individual-centred analysis, what sociology calls “agency”. This is the capacity of individuals to act independently, make their own free choices, and take responsibility for their actions. Except for the behaviour of mainly Indigenous men who kill Indigenous women and girls, a claim Professor Sinclair vehemently denies, the Inquiry utterly disregarded this fundamental component of the human condition.

Instead, it lamented that Ottawa didn’t give it even more time and money. Buller unashamedly stated that, “part of this national tragedy is governments’ refusal to grant the National Inquiry the full two-year extension requested. In doing so, governments chose to leave many truths unspoken and unknown.” Conveniently, she failed to mention that the nearly $100-million exercise she led had failed even to issue subpoenas for police files on the victims until a few months before the inquiry’s end thereby ensuring that this critical data could not be analyzed.

The MMIWG inquiry’s expansion of genocide to cover the tragic murder and disappearance of 1,200 Indigenous women and girls is not merely a canard; it is a falsehood. An outrageous and disingenuous falsehood. One could almost describe it as an Indigenous-style blood libel. Why, then, was it employed by the Inquiry’s commissioners? Given that the Final Report adds nothing to what was learned from 98 previous reports since at least 1907 about the extent, nature, and causes of the issue, it seems likely there was a need for a shock-and-awe doublespeak term to grab public attention while demanding more public money for, among other things, more public inquiries.

This wasteful $92 million Inquiry and the enormous “Indian Industry” it is part of has surely done the former and will continue to press for the latter. The Supplementary Report’s legal opinion makes the financial motivation crystal-clear: “Under international law, Canada has a duty to redress the [genocidal] harm it caused and to provide restitution, compensation and satisfaction to Indigenous peoples.”

Canada has never been a genocidal society. By almost any measure, no country has done more for its Indigenous people. Yet the abuse of language has consequences. Our likely future includes censure by the OAS and a trip to the Supreme Court, followed by some international legal tribunal in The Hague to obtain this “redress”.

Welcome to Canada!

Hymie Rubenstein is a retired professor of anthropology who for 31 years taught and wrote about the lifeways of Indigenous and other cultures at the University of Manitoba.

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