Only four years ago, a tremendous change occurred in how many non-Indigenous Canadians perceive Indigenous people. The chief justice of Canada, Beverley McLachlin, used the phrase “cultural genocide” in late May 2015 to describe a number of government policies. Days later, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued its interim final report, which employed the phrase as its main organizing theme. Since then, many public declarations on Canada’s relationship with the original peoples have included references to “cultural genocide.” In its June 2019 report, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls went further, concluding that genocide is being perpetrated against First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people in Canada. Shortly afterwards, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged that Canada’s historic actions had caused the genocide of Indigenous women and girls.
David B. MacDonald, a University of Guelph political scientist, has written a timely book using genocide as an analytical tool “to better make sense of Canada’s past and aspects of its ongoing actions into the present.” A twenty-page introduction opens the study, outlining the nine chapters that follow. MacDonald begins with the “legalist” definition of genocide, first reviewing the contribution of the Polish Jewish legal theorist Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term in 1944 and helped create, in 1948, the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, known as the Genocide Convention. A central focus of the legalist approach, MacDonald shows, is specific intent. He argues that the traditional academic understanding of the term must be broadened beyond mass killing: “the pluralist conception of genocide is equally necessary because of the narrow framing” of the convention. If we are to “better understand the fuller magnitude of what has been done to Indigenous peoples during the creation of the Canadian state,” we should expand the definition of genocide.
In his third chapter, “Forcible Transfer as Genocide in the Indian Residential Schools,” MacDonald develops his argument for a pluralistic definition of genocide. While he draws upon the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report, specifically its examination of the origins of residential schools, his probe into the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries does not include historical research of his own with primary sources. Our first prime minister, for instance, escapes rigorous examination. John A. Macdonald is a very complex figure. The contradictions of his policies include the ruthless repression of the Plains First Nations in the Northwest immediately after the unrest of 1885. The areas that are now Alberta and Saskatchewan were administered in 1885 essentially as a police state. Yet that same year, Macdonald extended the federal franchise to adult male Indians in central and eastern Canada who met the property requirement — without obliging them to lose their existing rights as Status Indians. Thirteen years later, Wilfrid Laurier and the Liberals abolished this right (only in 1960 was the federal franchise once again granted to Status Indians without the loss of status).
Did Macdonald deliberately plot the extermination of Indigenous peoples? If so, why did the Haudenosaunee physician Oronhyatekha (Peter Martin) and his wife, Ellen Hill, a direct descendant of Joseph Brant, name their sixth child John Alexander in 1882? And why did the prime minister, in 1886, invite two groups of Plains First Nations leaders to tour central Canada? The first group, from Blackfoot or Treaty Seven country in southern Alberta, included the great chiefs Crowfoot and Red Crow. Macdonald welcomed them to his Ottawa home, Earnscliffe, in early October. Two weeks later, he played host to four eminent chiefs from the Treaty Four and Treaty Six areas, in present-day Saskatchewan, including the influential leaders Ahtahkakoop and Mistawasis. During that visit, Macdonald asked Chief Ahtahkakoop to suggest a Cree name for his daughter, Mary.
Subsequent chapters of The Sleeping Giant Awakens focus on history from the 1950s onward: the removal of Indigenous children from their families and placement with non-Indigenous families, known as the Sixties and Seventies Scoop; the TRC and the question of genocide; the TRC and Indigenous deaths. MacDonald laments, “Many settler Canadians do not accept cultural genocide, and certainly not outright genocide.” Prominent scholars have already refuted the accusations of genocide and cultural genocide — a problematic stance, he contends. “The institutions that carried out genocide,” MacDonald writes, “continue to hold political, economic, and judicial power in Canada.” Ultimately, as he argues in “Conciliation and Moves to Responsibility,” his last chapter, “conciliation efforts should support the Indigenous resistance and resurgence occurring across Turtle Island.”
Many Canadian historians will share one major criticism of The Sleeping Giant Awakens: it is ahistorical. Throughout the book, MacDonald views the past solely from the vantage point of the present. He seems to have made little effort to examine the surviving documentary evidence, in particular the extensive records relating to the Department of Indian Affairs and the Sir John A. Macdonald Papers themselves.
Putting down the book, a critical reader must ask whether “genocide” is truly the word for Canada’s Indigenous policies. The Genocide Convention defines it as acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.” Both intent and action must be present for destructive state actions to be considered genocide. The problem in the Canadian case is that, while government policies were often terribly destructive to Indigenous people, those actions were never undertaken with the intent to destroy an Indigenous group.
The goal of policies we now consider horrific — forced attendance at residential schools, limitations on mobility, reshaping economies and systems of governance, and suppressing languages and spiritual practices — was to control Indigenous people but not to eradicate them. Canada sought first to persuade and later to compel Indigenous peoples to live, work, worship, and govern themselves as Euro-Canadians did. If Canada had wanted to destroy them, it would not have devoted so much effort to trying to turn them into Euro-Canadians.
Over time, as state policies failed and First Nations, Inuit, and Métis continued to adhere to their own ways, frustration on the part of politicians and bureaucrats increased and led to the application of greater coercion and control by the Department of Indian Affairs, with greater damage to Indigenous communities. The rising level of frustration can be measured in the rhetoric federal officials used to explain their policies.
In 1871, for example, the department responsible described its efforts as “designed to lead the Indian people by degrees to mingle with the white race in the ordinary avocations of life.” By the late 1880s, when it was obvious First Nations were resisting government policies, the federal government said, in the words of John A. Macdonald, “The great aim of our legislation has been to do away with the tribal system and assimilate the Indian people in all respects with the other inhabitants of the Dominion, as speedily as they are fit for the change.” And in 1920, an exasperated deputy superintendent general of Indian affairs, Duncan Campbell Scott, told a parliamentary committee, “I want to get rid of the Indian problem. . . . Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic.”
As objectionable as those remarks are today, they reveal clearly the government’s aim: assimilation, not extermination. Assimilation should not be confused with or equated to genocide. No government statement or unpublished government document has ever been produced that contains evidence of an “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.” Offensive or not, to absorb is not the same thing as to destroy.
There are two fundamental problems with the suggestion, by David MacDonald and others, that we should use genocide as the lens through which to examine Canadian history. First, if we disregard the 1948 convention’s criteria as the standard for judging whether genocide occurred, we are inevitably drawn into an argument over what is and what is not genocide. If that definition is not the test, what is? Second is the awkward reality that, in The Sleeping Giant Awakens at least, MacDonald does not explain his preferred definition of genocide — the “pluralist” approach — clearly and precisely. What are the criteria for deciding whether acts were genocidal without a clearly defined benchmark?
What David B. MacDonald depreciates as “legalist” is the only definition that permits productive debate and that will enable all Canadians to move on from disputation to action, so that we might work to repair some of the enormous damage that has been done to Indigenous peoples in the past.