As the world marked the 25th anniversary of the horrors of the Rwandan genocide, I had the occasion to conduct one of the more emotional and moving interviews of my career.
Melchior Cyusa now lives in Calgary after somehow managing to escape from the massacre in Rwanda. He was just nine years old at the time. Most of his family, however, suffered a far more horrific fate: Cyusa’s parents and five siblings were among the more than one million who were slaughtered in those three horrific months.
That is what most people think of when they hear the word “genocide.” As such, the idea that genocide has happened in this country is not something that most Canadians are likely to accept. That may also mean that otherwise-sensible observations and recommendations made by those simultaneously touting the genocide claim will be disregarded.
And if that turns out to be the case with regard to the final report from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, then it will have ultimately done a disservice to the entire process.
In the aftermath of the report’s release, there was some drama around the question of whether Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would say the word “genocide.” Initially, he resisted, but the following day he did, indeed, say it: “We accept the finding that this was genocide. And we will move forward to end this ongoing national tragedy.”
Interestingly, Trudeau’s statement implies past tense — so this was genocide but it no longer is? At what point did the genocide end?
Honestly, though, this is about as glib a way as possible for the head of our government to be making the staggering admission that this country is guilty of genocide. Yes, there was genocide, but now let’s move on? In what other conversation about any other genocide would that be a remotely reasonable response?
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Even if one could mount a reasonable case that the plight of these murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls constitutes genocide, or if one accepts the rationale put forth by the inquiry on this question, there is still the question of what, exactly, we think it accomplishes.
If it is now a distraction to get hung up on the g-word, and if we’re not inclined to commence war crimes tribunals for those deemed to be responsible for carrying out this genocide, then why was there a need to make this case in the first place? To what end?
Moreover, the case for “genocide” is undercut by the mandate and the focus of the inquiry itself. This was not an examination of the plight of all Indigenous Peoples — Indigenous men were specifically excluded. Are we to accept that there was genocide against Indigenous women but not men, despite the fact that the latter group has traditionally suffered from a higher rate of homicide? Are we to simply presume that this genocide was carried out against Indigenous men, even though this inquiry did not seek to examine their plight?
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There’s also the unintended consequences of what has happened here, and we seem to have opened quite a can of worms. For example, both the Organization of American States and Amnesty International have suggested that Canada should be investigated for committing genocide.
But the case for using the term genocide is tenuous at best and counterproductive at worst.
For one, it’s not a term we should seek to water down and it would be a shame if Canada’s ability to speak out about genocide or the types of human rights abuses that can pave the way for genocide was weakened as a result of this.
Moreover, though, if we want Canadians to accept the conclusions and recommendations of the report then that job is made all the more difficult by a rather controversial — and arguably absurd — assertion that only serves to give people an excuse to disregard all this work.
This is an otherwise very serious and scathing report. It should shock Canadians into action. We should be having a conversation about how our shameful indifference contributed to this immense tragedy. But, unfortunately, that’s not the conversation that’s taking place.