More than two decades ago, residential schools’ scholars such as James R. Miller and indigenous leaders began to describe the efforts of the Canadian government to assimilate the Indigenous Peoples through the residential schools and other related policies as cultural genocide—arguing that assimilation was intended to destroy the Indigenous Peoples of Canada as a culturally distinct group.1 Other scholars, mostly outside Canada, have noted that the cultural destruction of a group is not defined in the UN Genocide Convention as genocide (cultural genocide was excluded from the final document because of the objections of colonial states such as Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and France).2
Scholar Steven Katz wrote about genocide in the specific context of the Holocaust and defined it narrowly as the intent to carry out “unmediated, intended, complete physical eradication of every Jewish man, woman and child.” Separating the Holocaust as a unique atrocity, Katz went on to argue that it “is this unconstrained, ideologically driven imperative that every Jew be murdered that distinguished the Holocaust from all prior anti-Semitism and, to this date, all subsequent, however inhumane, acts of collective violence.”3 Scholar David MacDonald explains that Katz and others therefore “exclude all other instances of genocide in world history, including the genocide of North America’s indigenous peoples.”4
Yet, for Raphael Lemkin, the man who coined the term genocide in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, the cultural destruction of a group was as important as the physical annihilation of its members. According to Lemkin,
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 original contributions, based upon genuine traditions, genuine culture, and well-developed national psychology. The destruction of a nation, therefore, results in the loss of its future contribution to the world. . . . Among the basic features which have marked progress in civilization are the respect for and appreciation of the national characteristics and qualities contributed to world culture by different nations—characteristics and qualities which . . . are not to be measured in terms of national power or wealth.5
In 1946, when the newly founded United Nations began debating the creation of an international agreement for the prevention and punishment of genocide, it accepted Lemkin’s view.6 The United Nations General Assembly, where these ideas were debated, then instructed one of its bodies to draw up a draft of this international agreement for its next session. A subsequent draft, written by the United Nations Secretariat, defined cultural genocide as “any deliberate act committed with the intention of destroying the language, religion or culture of a . . . group, such as, for example, prohibiting the use of the group’s language or its schools or places of worship.”7 But, as international law expert William A. Schabas observes, the final version of Article 2 ended up being “a much-reduced version of the text prepared by the Secretariat experts.” To this day it does not mention cultural genocide. However, Schabas explains, the final version we have today includes “an exception to this general rule, allowing ‘forcible transfer of children from one group to another’ as a punishable act.”8 In that sense, the Genocide Convention “categorized forcible child transfers as cultural genocide.”9 David MacDonald argues that Article 2 (e) indeed brings the residential schools under the Genocide Convention without any need to alter its language.10
Legality aside, why do so many activists and scholars now want to define forcible assimilation (as was carried out in the residential schools) as genocide? Political correspondent Mary Agnes Welch writes:
The idea of cultural genocide is particularly important for Canadian First Nations because few mass killings or instances of direct physical destruction occurred in Canadian history. But, there are many cases of policies whose indirect intent was to destroy culture at the very least, and First Nations would argue the upshot was the same—the end of them as a people. Tacking on the word “culture” somehow signals something was less than real genocide. Instead, scholars are arguing that destroying a group’s culture amounts to genocide plain and simple, with no need for a qualifier that softens the blow.11
Sociologist Andrew Woolford of the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg explains in an interview:
If genocide should be understood as the “destruction of group life rather than lives within a group,” then in the case of Canada’s indigenous peoples, that means understanding what makes them a group, what defines their cultural cohesion, such as a profound attachment to the land and nature. So, in Canada’s colonial past, systematically depriving First Nations of access to their land so European pioneers could settle and railways could be built, is genocidal.12
Andrew Woolford, Adam Muller, and others therefore argue that if genocide is the targeting of a group’s existence as a group—that is, its “groupness”—then all acts designed to affect the group’s destruction—physical, cultural, political, economical, or otherwise—should be counted as genocidal.13
- 1 : James R. Miller, Shingwauk’s Vision: A History of Native Residential Schools (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 2012), 9–10.
- 2 : Shamiran Mako, “Cultural Genocide and Key International Instruments: Framing the Indigenous Experience,” International Journal on Minority and Group Rights 19 (2012), 183.
- 3 : Steven Theodore Katz, Continuity and Discontinuity between Christian and Nazi Anti-Semitism (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2001), 74.
- 4 : David MacDonald, “Canada’s history war: Indigenous genocide and public memory in the United States, Australia, and Canada,” Journal of Genocide Studies, forthcoming, 2015.
- 5 : Raphael Lemkin, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation - Analysis of Government - Proposals for Redress, 2nd ed. (Clark, NJ: The Lawbook Exchange, Ltd., 2005), 91.
- 6 : United Nations Resolution 96 (1), “The Crime of Genocide,” declared: “Genocide is the denial of the right of existence of entire human groups … Such denial of the right of existence shocks the conscience of mankind, results in great losses to humanity in the form of cultural and other contributions represented by these human groups, and is contrary to moral law and to the spirit and aims of the United Nations . . . The general assembly, therefore, affirms that genocide is a crime under international law … for the commission of which principals and accomplices . . . whether the crime is committed on religious, racial, political or any other grounds—are punishable.” United Nations Resolution 96 (1) ,“The Crime of Genocide,” United Nations website, accessed June 2, 2017. Emphasis added.
- 7 : Quoted in Kurt Mundorff, “Other Peoples’ Children: A Textual and Contextual Interpretation of the Genocide Convention, Article 2(e),” Harvard International Law Journal 50 (2009), 76.
- 8 : William A. Schabas, “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide,” United Nations Audiovisual Library of International Law, accessed June 17, 2015.
- 9 : Quoted in Kurt Mundorff, “Other Peoples’ Children: A Textual and Contextual Interpretation of the Genocide Convention, Article 2(e),” Harvard International Law Journal 50 (2009), 82.
- 10 : David B. MacDonald and Graham Hudson, “The Genocide Question and the Indian Residential School In Canada,” Canadian Journal of Political Science 45 (2012), 428.
- 11 : Mary Agnes Welch, “The Genocide Test,” Winnipeg Free Press, July 12, 2014, accessed Nov. 25, 2014.
- 12 : Mary Agnes Welch, “The Genocide Test,” Winnipeg Free Press, July 12, 2014, accessed Nov. 25, 2014.
- 13 : Adam Muller, “Troubling History, Troubling Law: The Question of Indigenous Genocide in Canada,” in Understanding Atrocities: Remembering, Representing and Teaching Genocide, ed. Scott W. Murray (University of Calgary Press, 2017), 83.