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Farber: Struggling to come to grips with our history of genocide

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During the shiva, it is customary to burn a candle each day

Earlier this month, I wrote about a controversy of words associated with the U.S. government’s rounding up of innocent civilians and placing them in detention camps. Many, myself included, referred to such inhumane places as “concentration camps.”

This elicited strong reactions worldwide. Many believed that “concentration camp” is a term best reserved for the worst and most brutal of such prisons operated by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

Another modern term that has come under equal scrutiny is “genocide.”

We are all familiar with the mass atrocities committed in Rwanda by the Hutus against the Tutsis, in which as many as a million people were slaughtered. The devastation in the former Yugoslavia, the mass murder of Armenians by the Turks, the Ukrainian famine known as the Holodomor and, of course, possibly the most brutal and almost successful attempt by Nazi Germany to murder all the Jews of the world, the Shoah, are all genocides officially recognized by Canada.

These genocides are easy to understand and grasp. Yet the term itself is not reserved for wholesale mass murder of a population. In the 21st century, the world struggles mightily to understand and better define genocide.

Canada, along with 151 other states, are signatories to the UN Genocide Convention, the most recognized and accepted understanding of what comprises a genocide in both peace and war.

According to the United Nations, “genocide means 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.”

Canada’s treatment of its indigenous people has now been labelled genocide under the UN definition by two government-commissioned studies over the last 10 years. This has led to a crisis of conscience right here in Canada.

The first study of the issue, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), chaired by Sen. Murray Sinclair, cautiously put forward the concept of Canadians’ treatment of its indigenous population as a “cultural genocide.” By prefacing the term with the adjective “cultural,” it very much helped Canadians better accept our sordid history.

However, truth be told, what we did to indigenous people requires no qualifier. It was, by UN definition, genocide. Indeed, well before the findings of the TRC, I had the honour of co-writing an op-ed with former Assembly of First Nations national chief Phil Fontaine and philanthropist and indigenous advocate Dr. Michael Dan. The article was published in the Toronto Star under the headline A Canadian Genocide in Search of a Name.

In the essay, we concluded that under the UN definition, “Canada’s treatment of its First Nations, even in our own lifetime, meets the genocide test:

• “The recently exposed nutrition experiments carried out in the residential schools meets the criteria under point (b).”

• “The residential school system itself, and the practice of forcibly removing First Nations children from reserves and placing them with adoptive non-aboriginal families, common in the 1960s, and referred to as Sixties Scoop, meet the criteria under point (e).”

• “The decision by the government in the 1900s to allow native children to die of tuberculosis meet the criteria under point (c).”

Today, the recent release of the final report of the National Inquiry Into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) unequivocally concludes that genocide against indigenous people occurred, with no qualifiers, and in many ways continues. This has re-engaged the doubters and deniers.

It is time for us to face the truth.

 

For more information, I will be moderating two forums on this vital issue: the Richmond Hill Speakers Series on Sept. 12 at the Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts, and a Holocaust Education Week event on Nov. 4 at Hart House.

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