At the end of the Second World War, the Allies instigated a broad program of denazification coupled with a wider policy of enforced collective responsibility. In doing so they determined that the German people bore collective responsibility for the actions of Hitler, the Nazi party, and the German military (as well as the SS), including the multiple inter-related genocides they carried out during the Holocaust.
It was a psychological warfare pincer movement, albeit one designed to make the German people productive members of a global society once more, rather than destroying them. All signs and symbols of the Nazi party were immediately destroyed—some spectacularly so—often by German civilians pressed into ‘denazifying’ their environment. It was in effect an enforced collective humiliation designed to erase all evidence of Nazism from Germany. The process also involved prison terms for Nazi officials and a total ban on displaying Nazi symbols of any kind, publicly or privately. Denying the Holocaust was also forbidden, and Germany still carries some of the world’s strictest penalties for doing so.
But it didn’t end there. As many German civilians were claiming they had no knowledge of the Holocaust, the Allies regularly brought German civilians to the death camps and forced them to observe the crematoriums, gas chambers and other irrefutable evidence of industrial murder. Civilians were constantly bombarded by Allied controlled propaganda designed specifically to enforce the notion of collective guilt. It was inescapable: newspapers showed the evidence in gruesome detail; radio broadcasts told the truth of Nazi atrocities; posters and pamphlets ensured not only that everyone saw what had been done, but were further reminded of who was responsible. It was a psychological onslaught of unprecedented proportions, but it was deemed absolutely necessary to break the grasp of Nazism on the German people.
It wasn’t enough to do this just within Germany, either. The world had to know what had happened. The Allies sought out the considerable volume of documentary evidence the Germans had compiled themselves, and then made it widely available. This was then used at the Nuremberg trials, which in turn were filmed and reported on extensively.
The goal was to make genocide denial impossible, and though there are strong arguments suggesting denazification was suspended too early, that too many Nazis made their way into positions of power after the war, and that the culpability of the Allies in allowing Hitler’s rise (and ignoring early evidence of the Holocaust) was never adequately acknowledged, the effort nonetheless had the positive effect of making Nazi genocide and war crimes widely known to the global population. This made denialism a crime in its own right—or at the very least an unpardonable taboo—in most societies around the world.
I mention this not because I believe our society is at an untenable deficit in terms of basic knowledge and education concerning the Holocaust in particular, and the Second World War more broadly (it is, and the consequences of this ignorance are unfortunately becoming more apparent all the time), but because I believe a similar process needs to be applied to the genocide for which Canada as a nation state is collectively responsible.
Cultural genocide was the conclusion of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but it is important to note that the TRC was severely restricted in terms of what kind of genocide it could conclude Canada was responsible for committing. While the TRC was an important first step in documenting the eyewitness testimony of survivors and reviewing the available archival materials, it was nonetheless prevented—due to a variety of constraints including budget, mandate, and a lack of political will—to more thoroughly investigate whether the residential schools and the actions of federal and provincial governments towards the Indigenous population since Confederation constitute a physical genocide.
The Allies forced the Germans to recognize the genocide they bore responsibility for. And while the two events—the Holocaust and the genocide of Indigenous peoples—cannot be directly compared, no such occupying force can compel our governments to do the same. Moreover, a determination of physical or biological genocide carries with it a higher likelihood of investigation by higher powers, such as the United Nations, which is probably the only organization sufficiently impartial, and sufficiently interested in decolonization, to be trusted with such an investigation in the first place.
The apparent paucity of physical evidence of genocide is, perhaps as you might imagine, exactly what genocide deniers in Canada have latched on to. Recent comments by National Post columnist Barbara Kay are demonstrative of this unfortunate trend. Unlike the Holocaust, where there was both ample physical evidence as well as a desire on the part of the Allies to ensure against Holocaust denial, Canada has not conducted a criminal investigation of the deaths of children (potentially in the tens of thousands) at residential schools. In fact, the government of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper actively worked against the TRC’s efforts to investigate what had occurred to the thousands of children who disappeared while in residential school custody.
While the Trudeau government did earmark $320 million to “support for Indigenous-led, Survivor-centric and culturally sensitive initiatives and investments to help Indigenous communities respond to and heal from the ongoing impacts of residential schools,” this money is limited to locating burial sites at specific residential schools and creating memorials. It will not be used for forensic investigations or possible criminal cases.
What’s more, funds allocated by the federal government to redress these historical wrongs are primarily diverted to helping Indigenous people through acts of commemoration, not addressing the broader societal problems caused by the trauma of the schools, nor presenting the evidence of genocide—cultural or otherwise—to the broader Canadian public. This is akin to if the postwar German government offered Jews money to erect a monument at Dachau, instead of conducting any kind of investigation into what had happened there.
Canadian society is generally uncomfortable acknowledging the state’s historic responsibility for acts of genocide perpetrated against Indigenous peoples. Yet, with a resurgent nationalist right and forms of residential school denialism undermining truth and reconciliation efforts, the need for a rigorous process of self-reflection is perhaps more important than ever.
And while any form of enforced collective responsibility is as unlikely to occur as it is politically inexpedient, it may also be the kind of action necessary to bring us together and restore faith in government. Sharing in grief and taking responsibility can do that to a people, but I do suspect that getting to the bottom of Canada’s great shame ultimately needs to be a people-driven process.
Taylor C. Noakes is an independent journalist and public historian from Montréal. In addition to writing regularly for Canadian Dimension, he contributes to the Toronto Star, Jacobin, Cult MTL, The Maple, DeSmog, and the Montréal Review of Books, among others. He holds an MA in Public History from Duquesne University and has worked on the restoration of playwright August Wilson’s childhood home. He is also a frequent contributor to the Canadian Encyclopedia, and once debated several Canadian prime ministers at once on matters of foreign policy.