(Not) Talking About Genocide

It’s not “breaking news” anymore, but there was an announcement last week of the discovery of mass graves of First Nations children who died at residential schools. It was coupled with an announcement of an independent inquiry called The International Human Rights Tribunal Into Genocide in Canada.

When we talk about the history of white-native relations in Canada (which we rarely do at all), mainstream Canadians have two pictures in their heads of the nature of the wrongs done to aboriginal peoples – the first is ancient history, the smallpox-infested blankets and the wars and the actual killing that the original European settlers perpetrated centuries ago. And that doesn’t really matter, because it was so long ago, and can’t we just forget already? Or, occasionally, we’ll talk about residential schools, in existence until the 1960s all over Canada, and into the 1970s in some places. If we’re talking about that, we’ll talk about sexual abuse, about lawsuits against the churches and government and what the settlements should be, about the death of languages and culture and the violence done in order to ensure assimilation. All of that is bad enough, and we’ll occasionally start to use words like “genocide” to describe the ways all of those actions were designed to erase peoples, history, difference, which will be questioned, because, after all, we’re not talking about actual murder.

Except that we are. We’re talking about recent murder, the murder of children whose families are still alive. We’re talking about children. Mainstream Canadians cannot handle the word “genocide”; there is a constant aversion to recognizing what we’re really talking about here. Like it doesn’t count because it’s continued over 500 years instead of being carried out in one sharp, punctuated burst of violence. As if the fact that we, white European settlers, never really sat down and wrote a manifesto that included the desire to exterminate all aboriginal peoples implies that there’s something questionable about the use of the term “genocide”. We’re quiet, calm, rational Canadians – we don’t talk about hate, so we can’t have hate crimes.

With respect to residential schools, people are still making the argument that “folks back then didn’t really know any better” – because when we’re talking about “folks”, we gloss right over having to think about the many, many people who actually did the violence, or the worst of it. We end up talking about how it’s somehow understandable for “folks” to have set policies that take children from their parents, that include the official goal of getting them to forget their native languages (including the use of beatings and threats to enforce that regulation) and learn proper, Christian teachings. They didn’t know any better at the time.

Mass. Graves.

What we’re essentially saying, when we say that, is that “they” didn’t know these children and their parents were people. Not for real. And if we won’t use the word genocide, then we’re still not admitting that, and current events, as per usual, get filtered through a distorted, rosy, sugary-sweet maple-syrup coloured lens.

5 thoughts on “(Not) Talking About Genocide

  1. DeNatured says:

    With respect to residential schools, people are still making the argument that “folks back then didn’t really know any better”

    Forget “back then”; the last residential school closed within my memory, and I’m just a young’un. I can’t believe the amount of handwaving Canadians will do and allow, just so we don’t have to think of First Nations People as actual, you know, people. How many years does a reserve have to be under a boil order before someone gives a shit? Land claims, if by some amazing chance they aren’t circular filed, take literal decades to be processed. I grew up outside Sudbury, across the lake from the Whitefish Lake First Nation, where a large proportion of my classmates and friends were Aboriginal, and still “Drunk Indian” jokes were rampant. Encouraged, even. Yet how many times have we heard the Windbags That Be yammer on about the “respect” Canadians have for First Nations People? This shit is systemic in this country, and nobody seems to be prepared to do a damn thing about it.

    “It’s not up to me!” we love to cry. “It’s not my fault!” Bullshit. It is. So you and I haven’t personally beaten an Aboriginal child for speaking her native language. We haven’t personally worked to eradicate generations of people and cultures. Wow. I’m sure somebody’s getting right to work on that medal.

    So what’s the answer? Fucked if I know. I don’t think anybody knows. But it starts, just like every other solution, with listening to people who know what they’re talking about, and not rolling into a prickly ball like a hedgehog every time someone says something we don’t want to hear. And it starts with believing that people are human, all of us, and are quite capable of recognising systemic oppression when it’s happening to them.

    P.S: Hi. I came across you when matt linked to you from Shakesville, and I was looking for some CanCon to add to my reading list. I’ve really appreciated what I’ve read from you so far!

  2. purtek says:

    Hi there. Matt may be the best salesman I’ve ever had – not sure what I ever did to impress the guy, but I’m not complaining. :)

    I love your comment about the medal, not least because it sounds almost exactly like something I said several months ago in an old post:

    You haven’t slaughtered, beaten or raped anyone because of their race? Good for you. Your scorecard is now at zero. “Did not directly participate in genocide” seems a pretty bare minimum to expect of people, so I’m pretty confident that it’s not an accomplishment you really want to be too proud of….If “not a rapist, murderer, or active perpetrator of genocide” is your definition of “good, upstanding moral individual”, then go ahead and talk about how you’re sick of being tarred with the same brush as the worst of men/white people/straight people etc. I’d prefer to aim higher.

    I feel like I should have been clearer that yes, these were recent events…that’s part of my point…we have this vision of it being ‘back then’, distant, removed, foreign, almost…everything we do when we’re talking about it is designed to avoid the idea that it’s right there in front of us and that it, you know, *matters*.

    The distancing language helps us justify as “okay” the kind of daily racism of “drunken Indians” or the bullshit ways we talk about what’s happening in Caledonia and avoid, avoid, avoid responsibility. The Civil Rights movement in the US feels more promimate in our mental history than residential schooling, not to mention the health issues, non-existent infrastructure, etc that continues *right now* on reserves just on the other side of town.

    I agree, fucked if I have any sense of the answer. But we have to start talking about it using accurate terminology, here.

  3. DeNatured says:

    That comment ended up a lot longer than I’d intended. This is an issue that hits my “frustrated rant” button.

    Thanks for letting me use your space. And kudos for calling it what it is. Maybe if enough people do…

  4. purtek says:

    Take all the space you like. That’s what the space is for. Frustrated rant on this is better than the apathy from all other corners. Also, *all* of my comments end up longer than I intend. I’m just learning to accept that as a feature, rather than a bug, of my personality.

  5. belledame222 says:

    jesus fucking christ. i…yeah, i can’t actually get my head around it. or, no, it makes me ill.

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