The missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls inquiry report was clear that Canada has carried out a “genocide” under international law.
Its use of the word has prompted discussions over its definition — and when acts of oppression and violence can be classified as a genocide.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stopped short of calling the disappearances and deaths of Indigenous women and girls in Canada a genocide on Monday, despite being called upon to do so.
Hours later, he acknowledged the report’s findings, telling a Vancouver crowd: “Earlier this morning, the national inquiry formally presented their final report, in which they found that the tragic violence that Indigenous women and girls have experienced amounts to genocide.”
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Justice Minister David Lametti said the federal government will leave the discussion of the term “genocide” to academics and experts, adding Ottawa has a responsibility to the families and survivors to fix the problem.
Here is a look at what “genocide” means, and why it was used in the context of Canada’s treatment of Indigenous Peoples.
United Nations definition
The term genocide was coined by a Polish lawyer by the name of Raphäel Lemkin in 1944.
Two years later, the United Nations first recognized genocide as a crime under international law. In 1948, it was codified as an independent crime in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Canada became a signatory in 1949.
Canada’s Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act, passed in 2000, offers a broader definition, saying genocide can encompass not only acts of commission, but “omission” as well.
The MMIWG inquiry report cited Lemkin’s work, noting that the lawyer explained genocide does not exclusively mean the “immediate destruction of a nation.”
Genocide, Lemkin described, “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.”
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Use of the term ‘genocide’ in the inquiry report
Naomi Sayers, an Indigenous lawyer based in Ontario, explained that Canada’s record on the treatment of Indigenous Peoples is indisputable.
“You can’t debate that fact,” she said. “Canada has a history of legislating Indigenous communities, Indigenous bodies and Indigenous systems to essentially annihilate them them, do away with them and to erase them forever.”
Sayers noted this has happened through both past and present Canadian governments, through things such as the enactment of the Indian Act, residential schools, and over-policing of Indigenous communities.
The MMIWG inquiry report holds the same position.
The report adds that in the Canadian context, genocide refers to deaths of Indigenous women in police custody, exploitation and trafficking of 2SLGBTQQIA people, physical, sexual and mental abuse, denial of Status and membership of First Nations, forced removal of children, chronic underfunding of essential human services, coerced sterilizations, and more.
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Why ‘genocide’ is the right word
Bernie Farber of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network explained those upset over the use of “genocide” in the report have a limited and often misguided understanding of the term.
Genocide, Farber noted, takes different forms.
“Taking First Nation children and sending them to residential schools is a form of genocide; the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls is a form of genocide,” Farber said.
“It’s not Auschwitz, it’s not Rwanda, but it’s certainly a form of genocide as we have defined it internationally.”
The report itself noted that Canada must own up to “colonial genocide,” which often goes unrecognized because it consists of a “slow death” carried out over centuries of policies, actions and omissions that cumulatively reflect an intention to destroy Indigenous Peoples.
“The insidious and gradual nature of the obliteration of Indigenous Peoples, and the lack of a uniform national policy spearheaded by a totalitarian mastermind, differentiate colonial genocide from our traditional understanding of what constitutes a genocide,” the report reads.
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Farber noted that in 2008, he visited Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum along with Jewish and First Nations leaders.
“We came out and both groups were very moved. We had a healing circle and they explained to us their pain — what it was like for them to be stolen away from their parents, having their culture stripped, and losing a piece of who they were as a nation. The pain is the same.”
Beyond the pain, Farber said it is simply international law: “That is how we have defined genocide.”
Sayers agreed that “there is no debate over what the definition of genocide is,” and added that the conversation needs to move beyond it.
“The definition is clear and the record is clear,” she said. “We need to accept it and figure out how we’re going to move forward.”
— With files from The Canadian Press