NEWS UNSETTLED | The word “genocide” is not up for debate

News Unsettled Opinions
Members of the Native Students Union. File photo by Belle White

I find myself extremely frustrated that the use of the word “genocide” to describe the violence and oppression that Indigenous Peoples in so-called North America have experienced and continue to experience has become a topic of controversy overshadowing discussions of the violence and oppression themselves.

The term genocide was defined by the United Nations very clearly in 1948. Genocide is any of the following acts: killing members of a group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of a group; deliberately inflicting on a group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. 

This definition is applicable to the North American context — look into the Indian Act and the history and ongoing impacts of residential schools, the 60s Scoop, the thousands of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, forced sterilization of Indigenous women, the overrepresentation of Indigenous peoples in Canadian prisons, dispossession of land, the lack of clean drinking water in Indigenous communities across the country, and the list goes on and on. Colonization is genocide, and it is ongoing. Many prefer to call it “cultural genocide” because it sounds more digestible, but there is no need to qualify the term because genocide is genocide. A simple reading of the National Inquiry of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls’ supplementary report on the legal analysis of genocide is enough to dispel any lingering doubts. 

Indigenous women and girls are dying at higher rates than anyone else in this country, so why are we so caught up on a word? There is enough evidence and analysis that this is no longer a conversation that needs to be happening. Behind this inaction is the reality that the Canadian state does not want us around — they want our land, and it would be most convenient for them if we all just disappeared. Simply put, the Government of Canada isn’t sufficiently addressing the problem because they benefit from our elimination. This truth might come off as unsettling to some, and the state will never directly admit to these motives, but it is the truth. Canada is more than just complicit in genocide against Indigenous peoples; Canada actively perpetrates genocide upon Indigenous peoples. 

My summer was full of conversations debating the use of the term genocide, but I don’t want to have that conversation anymore. I want to take action and do something productive, and I encourage you to do the same. My arguments are often easily dismissed because I am “young and idealistic” or “pushy and demanding,” but really it’s because I’m a young Indigenous woman and my body is not welcomed in the academy. Merely existing as an Indigenous woman living, working, and studying in a colonial state and institution puts a target on my back. This is my lived experience, and I’m completely unapologetic if the word genocide, when used in this context, is uncomfortable for you. The current government system perpetuates the ongoing genocide of Indigenous peoples, and something needs to change.