Jen Gerson: Our hypocrisy on genocide is Canada at its best and worst
Arguing about the meaning of the word always missed the point.
This week, the Prime Minister of an admittedly genocidal G7 state refused to condemn China for its treatment of its minority Uyghur population. A treatment that has included family separation, forced sterilization, and warehousing thousands of people in what can only be described as modern concentration camps.
Justin Trudeau failed to condemn China, noting, quite rightly, that genocide is an "extremely loaded” term. One not to be bandied about lightly. It demonstrates some moral cowardice on his part, certainly, but also a degree of pragmatism. Canada's squeaky and lonely objection would do little good. We're already in a vulnerable position, what with the ongoing captivity of two Canadians who remain in Chinese detention as an act of retaliation for our arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou. A declaration of genocide in this case is probably better handled by a collection of nations. As long as we can live with the shame of the smallness that such an argument implies.
(Although perhaps it was unwise to pin so many of our early hopes of an early vaccine rollout on a doomed collaboration with a Chinese manufacturer with a vaccine backed by China's Institute of Biotechnology and its Academy of Military Medical Sciences. Who could have predicted we would run into problems with such a notoriously reliable and honourable global partner that occasionally engages in hostage diplomacy? But I digress.)
The real issue with Trudeau's grovelling little deflection on the question of Chinese genocide is that it made his own position on the subject not two years ago impossible to ignore in comparison. The final report of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls inquiry stated that the truths it uncovered in the process of its years-long investigations:
"…tell the story — or, more accurately, thousands of stories — of acts of genocide against First Nations, Inuit and Métis women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people. This violence amounts to a race-based genocide of Indigenous Peoples ... This genocide has been empowered by colonial structures, evidenced notably by the Indian Act, the Sixties Scoop, residential schools, and breaches of human and Inuit, Métis and First Nations rights, leading directly to the current increased rates of violence, death, and suicide in Indigenous populations.”
Several pundits noted at the time that this stretched the definition of "genocide" beyond ordinary recognition. "Genocide" is not the result of a set of compounding government failures over time: it's a word that we reserve to describe a discrete set of acts motivated by the deliberate intent to decimate or totally exterminate an ethnic population. But after a day or so of hemming and hawing on the issue after the report was released, our prime minister noted: “The issue that we have is that people are getting wrapped up in debates over a very important and powerful term … We accept the finding that this was genocide, and we will move forward to end this ongoing national tragedy.”
There was some careful phrasing in this response. Note, Trudeau agreed that this was genocide, not that it is genocide. The prime minister dodged the implication that Canada is engaged in deliberate ethnic cleansing. But it's worth peeling back the skin of the onion, past the obvious and easy allegation of hypocrisy, and instead ask ourselves why?
Why can we get away with calling ourselves a genocidal state, but not China?
The answer to that was fairly obvious to me. One of these proclamations has consequences. The other, very evidently, did not. There were no legal proceedings as a result of Trudeau's statement. We have not been condemned by the United Nations, nor have our genocidal police forces been called up before special courts. Only a few months after admitting to leading a country of genocidaires, I can see no reference to the word "genocide" in the Liberals' 2019 platform; only the entirely stock promises toward Indigenous communities of years past — lifting boil water advisories, improving health care and infrastructure spending, protecting languages, and "continuing progress." I cannot even recall our genocide being discussed in the last election, dominated as it was by our prime minister's inappropriate "enthusiasm" for racist costumes.
Why were there no consequences for admitting that Canada was genocidal?
Because, at heart, the term wasn't accurate and everybody knew it — although saying so was highly impolite. Admitting to genocide was the act of atonement. It was a ritual of self abasement in the pursuit of absolution for the original sin of taking the land upon which we live. Arguing about the word therefore became transgressive — even suspect. Questioning it is taboo, an assault on an emerging national narrative that paints our history in terms far removed from sunny Canadian stereotypes.
I need to be careful here: there is a defensible argument that Canada historically engaged in policies and practices that had the effect of a genocide. The charge of "cultural genocide" is fair, to my mind. Too many Indigenous people live in unacceptable conditions, especially on reserves. These communities did, and still do, suffer from high rates of family separation, and even ongoing allegations of forced sterilization. There is no doubt that Indigenous Canadians suffer from a much higher risk of violence and violent death thanks to a host of intersecting factors, including intergenerational poverty and trauma. We could do much more to alleviate this suffering.
All of this is our collective shame. We own it. We all have a moral obligation to address these issues.
This deep need to expiate that shame — to achieve true reconciliation — is manifesting itself in ways beyond word taboos and spending promises. I see it, for example, in a state-sponsored First Nations-inspired pantheism that can be spotted in the guilt-tinged prayers of land recognitions; in the blessings and smudging ceremonies by Indigenous elders that now begin many official government announcements, groundbreakings and ceremonies. Heck, the MMWIG inquiry's "guiding principle is that 'our Women and Girls are Sacred.'"
There's a word that is extremely loaded, too. A federal government body declared a race-and-sex-based subgroub as "sacred" as a guiding principle for an official inquiry in an ostensibly secular society. We are seeking something much deeper than mere objective truth, here.
If you're expecting me to condemn this trend, I'm not sure I have it in me. If we need a national religious character, there are worse religions to pick. This darker version of our history is more accurate than the self-congratulatory narratives we are discarding. There's even a kind of karmic beauty in watching a once heavily Christian society adopt the spiritual blessings of cultures that it once nearly exterminated.
None of our sins were in any serious dispute prior to the release of the MMIWG report, which is why it was necessary to up the rhetorical ante with a word that engenders visions of killing fields and concentration camps. But it boggles the mind that our prime minister could accept that Canada committed genocide — to say the "right" thing — and then go on to do almost nothing about it.
This whole China episode and the hypocrisy it exposes is, for me, a display of Canada at its best and worst. It's an expression of the virtue most intrinsic to our national character, politeness. But a politeness that is an expression of right thought without right deed. Politeness as the shallow virtue that shades vice. It's politeness that protects the status quo.
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