On Monday June 3, the Canadian federal government released a report on the National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls, which concluded that an ongoing “genocide” is taking place against “thousands of Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA (two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, queer, questioning, intersex and asexual) people”.
The report, which garnered worldwide media coverage, prompted a call for action by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. After initially refraining from using the word “genocide” when speaking in Ottawa, the prime minister subsequently backed down and did so at an international Women Deliver conference in Vancouver.
As an academic working in the fields of mental health and behavioural science, I am concerned with the Canadian federal government’s endorsement of such misguided, inaccurate, and divisive language.
There is no question that Canadians of First Nation, Inuit, and Métis descent — particularly those living in remote areas — continue to face many daily stressors from economic marginalization that places them at high risk for poor physical, psychological, and nutritional health. The ongoing discrimination and racism faced by many indigenous Canadians certainly contribute to these problems.
But framing primarily cultural and socioeconomic issues in terms of “genocide,” however, promotes the false notion that active perpetrators of organized murder are to blame, and encourages indigenous people to adopt a counterproductive and divisive victimhood narrative.
To what extent, then, can we speak of an ongoing genocide? Let’s put things in perspective. Canada’s aboriginal people make up an estimated 5% of the Canadian population. Comparatively, rates of violence are certainly high in that population. Each year, aboriginal people account for about a quarter of all homicide victims nationwide. In 2017 (the latest available statistics), 38 aboriginal women were victims of homicide (a rate of 4.22 per 100 000), against 118 aboriginal men (13.40 per 100 000). In comparison, the homicide rates for non-aboriginal women and men in Canada were 0.75 and 2.10 per 100 000, respectively. Or to put things in contrast again, the world’s highest homicide rates are found in Honduras (90.4) and Venezuela (53.7). In comparison again, an estimated 77% of the Tutsi population was killed in the Rwandan genocide. Or consider how, during the infamous Operation Reinhard (1942-1943), 1.47 million Jews were slaughtered by the Nazis over the course of three months.*
The report of the National Inquiry defines “genocide” as a “sum of […] social practices, assumptions, and actions […] rooted in colonialism and colonial ideologies,” but provides few statistics or examples of substance to present a coherent picture of the alleged massacre. Rather, the report appears to tie together a loose string of incidents primarily involving substance abuse, domestic and gang violence, self-harm, suicide, running away from home, and other diseases of poverty. The unilaterally gendered and identitarian focus on “women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people” also signals a strange partisanship in this ad hoc construct. Why not extend public worry to the many — by most account more numerous — indigenous men and boys who also suffered tragic early deaths under similar circumstances? Recall that, as per 2017 statistics, fully three times more aboriginal men than women died by homicide. Among those comparatively low numbers, data for such vague notions as numbers of “asexual,” “questioning,” “intersex,” or indeed gay or heterosexual people are evidently not available.
The point here is not to dismiss the ongoing issues faced by Canadian First Nations. There is also no question that the past wrongs of colonization – including war and forced assimilation – have placed Canada’s First People at a historical disadvantage. Throughout human history, however, national borders have invariably been delineated through processes of international and internal military expansion. In today’s’ world, many cultural groups who could have been recognized as “first peoples” – from the Basque and Breton in France in Spain, the Welsh in Britain, or the Amazigh (Berber) in Algeria and Morocco – underwent forced assimilation and displacement, and were forbidden from speaking their language in residential schools. Their plea is neither remembered nor celebrated today.
In spite – and because – of its colonial past, the Canadian government also offers unprecedented levels of economic, social, and cultural opportunities to indigenous people for the reparation of past wrongs. In addition to these extraordinary steps toward reconciliation, it is also important to note that nothing resembling mass murder or state-sanctioned, deliberately orchestrated violence against indigenous people has taken place in Canada in well over 100 years.
Let us also pause to consider how qualifying persisting cultural and socioeconomic problems as “genocide” spells a grave insult to the memory of all those who died in the Shoah, the Armenian genocide, Rwanda, the Balkans, Cambodia, India and Pakistan; or again to the millions of peasants and political prisoners who died in the USSR and China; or again to the engineered famines of the Holodomor in the Ukraine, Mizrahi Jews murdered in Iraq in the Farhud pogrom, the Igbo persecuted in Nigeria, gypsies in Nazi camps, white Zimbabweans farmers, and the countless others whose massacres were never remembered as a genocide. More tragic still is the federal government’s blatant mischaracterization of the dynamics and psychology of genocide. As an act of collective hatred and violence, genocide is typically enacted by the masses, for the masses, against a social group perceived and envied as “superior.” Mob hatred is typically justified with social justice language, invariably appeals to the notion of being, or having been “oppressed” by the targeted group, and promotes righteous violence in defence of alleged victims. In rare cases when targeted groups hold no political or economic power — like the Rohingya of Myanmar or Gypsies in Europe — false rumours about the group’s “predatory” power usually serve to instill hatred and violence. The rage-filled accusations against the “predatory” power of “white people” chanted by an angry student mob attacking faculty at Evergreen College offer a clear illustration of this dynamics.
As evidenced by its tragic endorsement of a divisive ideology and its adoption of such Orwellian notions as the sacrality of “2SLGBTQQIA” identities, the federal government is making a clear step in the encouragement of cognitive traps and social pathologies that are conducive to — rather than preventive of — genocide.
My motives for speaking out are not personal. I have no vested interests in defending the “privileges” of whiteness, or the special status of identities of any kind. My concerns are humanist first and foremost. I am concerned for the unity of our societies, and for the wellbeing of indigenous people and all those who are being encouraged to adopt a victimizing narrative that celebrates their vulnerability while pitting them against alleged perpetrators.
On an individual level, victimization impairs coping and flourishing by encouraging rumination, negative affect, fear, and hopelessness. Seeking external causes and solutions for one’s difficulties only accentuates these traps while increasing interpersonal conflict. When taken to the realm of crowd psychology, collective rumination, externalization, and fear-mongering almost invariably lead to mass violence.
In these times of unprecedented peace and equality of opportunities, students mobilize with growing anger against such unsubstantiated canards as “epidemics” of rape on campus, murders against trans people…..and now a full-fledged genocide against indigenous 2SLGBTQQIA people. Our youth are also succumbing to growing rates of mental illness, while celebrating the very victimhood ideology that is making them sick.
History has shown that many of the groups who survived orchestrated mass murder and continued to face discrimination after dispossession and forced migration were able to recover and flourish in one generation, and create extraordinary opportunities for their children and grandchildren. This is true of Armenians as well as Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Mizrahi Jews who survived pogroms and the Shoah, but also Igbo Nigerians who survived mass murders, Cubans dispossessed by the Castro regime, and countless others. What these groups have in common are the shared values of cultural pride and solidarity, high aspirations, and endurance in the face of failure and hardship.
Canada’s First Nations certainly deserve their share of cultural pride and a celebration of their resilience. As it stands, our Government’s official invitation to conspiratorial hatred and victim ideology will further impair a vulnerable community and plant the seeds of division our already polarized nation.
*To add empirical support to this article, the paragraphs on current and comparative homicide statistics, along with the sentence highlighting the higher rates of male homicides among Canadian First Nations were added to the original post.
Nathan S. Roseman is an untenured professor working in the field of mental health and behavioral science somewhere in Canada. He writes under a pseudonym to protect his job and personal life. Follow him on Twitter @Roseman_s.