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Canada is Not the Arbiter of What is Genocide

Indigenous Politics

Any policy or law that denies people their culture is genocide. No adjective of “cultural” is required; genocide is genocide.

In the Anishinaabeg tradition, the place where rivers intersect is an important location of truth. It is where rivers intersected that nations renewed relationships with one another as well as exchanged ideas and items.

The Canadian Museum of Human Rights (CMHR), currently under construction in Winnipeg, Manitoba, is scheduled to open in 2014.

It is said that The Forks, as the site is commonly called, is a location of national importance transcending European arrival.

For those that do not know, The Forks is the place where the Red River and the Assiniboine River intersect and a place that served Indigenous people as a meeting place for thousands of years.

In this way Indigenous people view The Forks as a landscape ascribed with important knowledge and truth.

Although historically a place of truth, and thus in some ways possibly a good location for a museum on human rights, many Indigenous people and advocates are questioning whether the museum will offer the truth about Canada’s treatment of Indigenous people.

Important questions are being asked such as, “Are the CEO and staff able to act independently from government interference?”

The recent announcement that the museum will not rely on the word “genocide” in the titles of exhibits when discussing and describing the colonial policies that Canada has imposed on Indigenous people is offending many people.

Some argue that it may be more appropriate to use “cultural genocide” to describe what Canada has done to Indigenous people.

As a scholar with a four-year degree in cultural anthropology, and as an Indigenous person, I wholeheartedly disagree. I say this because I know it is the human dependence on cultural knowledge that differentiates us from all other beings. In essence it is cultural knowledge that makes us human.

Cultural knowledge guides us forward, gives us language, and it is cultural knowledge that houses our ceremonies of renewal, as well as housing our prayers and our understanding of peace, and teaches how to love and be hopeful. Without culture humans are no longer human.

Canada does not have the privilege of unilaterally redefining what is considered genocide. It was in 1944 when Raphael Lemkin birthed the word, and he defined genocide as having two phases: one, the destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group; the other, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor.

A people’s national pattern is housed within their cultural knowledge. In line with this understanding, Lemkin does not rely on mass murder as part of his criteria for genocide.

Later, in 1948, the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defined genocide as any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group:

(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.

While in this criteria set intentional murder is included, it does not end there. Learning from Lemkin, cultural denial is a large element of the UN definition of genocide.

Canada’s genocide is current and ongoing, not just in the past. Today, when a mother is registered under section 6(2) of the Indian Act and the father’s signature is not on the child’s birth certificate, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada’s (AANDC) Unstated Paternity Policy denies the child Indian status registration which in many cases transfers them out of their Indigenous nation.

AANDC does this through assuming that these fathers are not registered status Indians and through this assumption the child is denied who they are.

Disturbingly, this policy assumption remains in place in situations of sexual violence such as incest, rape and sexual slavery.

In addition to this policy, Canada’s Land Claims and Self-Government Policies with their pitiful settlement offers deliberately inflict conditions that bring about the destruction of Indigenous nations.

Canada does this through unilaterally placing narrow parameters around what they call final settlements. A nation is not a nation without land and resources.

Through these three policies coupled with Canada’s long colonial history of land and resource denial, the criminalization of our culture, the residential school system, and the intergenerational effects, Canada’s history of genocide moves into the present.

As an Indigenous person in Canada I live at the intersection of two state genocidal processes. First, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada’s Unstated Paternity Policy denies me Indian status registration. As a result, I am not entitled to citizenship in my nation and Canada withholds from me my rightful share of my treaty rights.

Second, the Algonquin of Ontario are currently heading toward ratifying a settlement offer recently tabled by the government of Canada that will lead to the demise of the Algonquin nation.

Canada is doing this by imposing on the Algonquin nation its concept of what we are entitled to. In this process, Canada relies on its unilaterally constructed Land Claims and Self-Government policies to set tight parameters around the negotiation process and thus its outcome. And this is in part why I paint my face black, a traditional Anishinaabe signifier of grief, mourning and loss.

Living at this intersection I carry a particular truth about Canada’s genocide. While the CMHR may opt not to use the word “genocide” in its exhibit titles, when I collaborated with the CMHR in October 2012, offering my oral history on my Section 15 Charter challenge and my work on the Algonquin Land Claims and Self-Government process, I relied on the word “genocide” to describe my experience as an Indigenous woman.

In a CBC interview, legal thinker, human rights equity advocate, and ally to Indigenous people Mary Eberts urged Canada to tell the truth of its human rights record as it is only on a foundation of truth that Canada and Indigenous people will be able to move forward.

Eberts added that in the event the CMHR is unable to offer an unflinching representation of Canada’s treatment of Indigenous people, the museum will be “an outstanding failure of steward-ship.” I agree with Mary, as I am sure many Indigenous people do.

Dr. Lynn Gehl is an Algonquin Anishinaabe-kwe from the Ottawa River Valley. She has a section 15 Charter challenge regarding the continued sex discrimination in The Indian Act, is an outspoken critic of the Ontario Algonquin land claims and self-government process, and recently published a book titled Anishinaabeg Stories: Featuring Petroglyphs, Petrographs, and Wampum Belts. You can see more of her work at


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