Taking Genocides

Here’s a hypothetical that may turn into an actual before too long.  In April 2022, the Canadian federal government announced a plan to make illegal the denial or downplaying of the Holocaust, the Nazis’ murder of six million Jews and others in Europe between 1933 and 1945.  Irwin Cotler, the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism, applauded the proposed law, saying that “Holocaust denial and distortion constitute a cruel assault on memory, truth, and justice – an antisemitic libel to cover up the worst crime in history.”  Then, just last month, members of the House of Commons unanimously passed a motion recognizing Canada’s Residential School System as an act of genocide.  “Today I lift up survivors, families, and communities who have sacrificed so much in order for people across Canada to know the truth: that what happened in residential schools was a genocide,” the motion’s sponsor, New Democratic Party MP Leah Gazan, was quoted.

Now, the United Nations’ definition of genocide was codified in 1948, as the enormity of Nazi Holocaust became known to the world. The UN Office on Genocide Prevention explains that the word signifies “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:  Killing members of the group; Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [or] Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”  According to these parameters, it’s indeed possible – a stretch, but possible – to include the Residential School System in the genocide category.

Yet consider this.  Under Adolf Hitler, the German state used the machinery of its government, including its civil service, its military, and its transport and public works infrastructure, to administer the physical extermination of a select population.  Germany was an advanced industrial nation that, over just a few years, organized the project and clearly documented it in many records, notoriously in the minutes of the Wannsee Conference of January 1942.  In Canada, meanwhile, under a succession of colonial and national offices dating from at least two centuries ago, policies towards Native peoples have varied widely – ranging from sanctioned neglect, to assimilation, and to nation-to-nation treaties, official apologies, and an elaborate complex of political and legal regulation.  It’s not a pretty history, but there’s a lot of it, extended over a long time.

So, if what Canada did to Aboriginal people in Residential Schools is said to be as much a genocide as what Nazi Germany did to Jewish people – even though the duration, implementation, and stated purpose of each were demonstrably very different – doesn’t that amount to downplaying the Holocaust?  How exactly do Native Residential Schools, along with Native reserves and gradual settlement by non-Natives of Native territory, compare to concentration camps, mass shootings, and gas chambers?  Is there a case to be made, hypothetically, that characterizing anything less than Hitler’s Final Solution as a genocide might itself be a criminal act, and is every Member of Parliament now liable to be charged with a hate crime? 

It probably won’t come to that, of course.  But that’s the logical terminus of what some have called the “Victim Olympics,” whereby Leah Gazan’s “survivors, families, and communities who have sacrificed so much” go up against Irwin Cotler’s “worst crime in history.”  On one hand, a law against “downplaying” the Holocaust relies on an open-ended notion of what constitutes an insufficient description of even an acknowledged fact, but on the other, using “genocide” as merely a jargonized descriptor of any historic tragedy dilutes the significance of real attempts to literally kill off whole classes of people.  For either event to merit special attention, the other must merit a little less. Combine these two contradictory, mutually exclusive fallacies – that there must only be one approved way to think about the Holocaust, but that there can only be one approved word used to convey the Native Residential School experience – and the result is an Olympics where nobody wins, least of all the Canadian public.