An ugly word with an ugly connotation
Discussions of genocide have not been part of the national dialogue leading up to Prime Minister Stephen Harper's apology in Parliament today to Canada's First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples for the travesty of residential schools. Beginning in the 1840s and lasting (unbelievably) until 1996, more than 150,000 children were taken from their families and shipped off to residential schools, most often under the auspices of the clergy, to be assimilated into the country's dominant culture. They were robbed of their traditions and their identity, a tragedy that devastated them and their descendants in ways that will never be forgotten, as residential schools survivor Shirley Williams said in an interview earlier this week.
The story of these children - and it allegedly includes physical and sexual abuse, as well as accounts of bodies buried in unmarked graves - will be the subject of Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Residential Schools, headed by Justice Harry Laforme. Two weeks ago, I asked him if the commission's work would involve any research into whether this tyranny should be investigated as genocide and he said he honestly didn't know. It was too soon, he said, to know how the commission would function. Still, it's not likely there will be allegations of genocide in the final report in five years time, although it could come up in individual hearings.
It's not that the actions of Canadian authorities might not be considered to be genocide. Although it's a matter upon which criminal authorities and international tribunals of justice would rule, there certainly appear to be areas that could qualify under the definitions of "genocide" by the Office of the High Commission for Human Rights at the United Nations. The U.N. code is clear. In the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genoicde. Introduced in 1948 and ratified in 1951, the definition (linked above) establishes that "genocide, whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish." In Article 2, the convention says genocide means "any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, 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.
Nevertheless, the tradition over the past two decades has been for truth and reconciliation commissions in other countries to seek the truth about what happened and to find ways for people - and countries - to heal. It has not been not to try to establish the existence of genocide and, therefore, to punish the guilty. Instead, the most well-known commissions in South Africa and Chile both offered freedom from prosecution for people who testified and, as a result, sought ways in which each nation could get past its own horrific histories. In South Africa, it was the abomination of apartheid and in Chile, the savage regime of the military junta after the 1973 overthrow of president Salvador Allende. It wasn't easy. During hearings in South Africa (leading to a 1998 report), Archbishop Desmund Tutu was in tears more than once and, during Chile's tribunal (reporting in 1991), relatives sobbed as they listened to accounts of the murder of mothers, fathers and children. Some died when they were thrown from helicopters into the Pacific Ocean.
It was the same for truth and justice commissions in Peru, Salvador and Bolivia.
This doesn't meant separate criminal proceedings haven't been launched. In Chile, the courts tried over several years in vain to bring General Augusto Pinochet to justice for his actions as a junta leader after the overthrow of Allende. Moreover, other international tribunals have attempted convictions for the crime of genocide, notably in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.
These are very different endeavours than the truth and reconciliation commissions that have set a model Canada is likely to follow. Maybe it's a good thing.