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Colonial Genocide in Indigenous North America

By A.J. Woolford, J. Benvenuto, and A.L. Hinton, Editors

This Benevolent Experiment: Indigenous Boarding Schools, Genocide, and Redress in Canada and the United States

By Andrew Woolford

April 4, 2016

Review By J.R. (Jim) Miller

When discussing genocide in history, precision of language and analysis is essential. “Genocide” is a powerfully emotional term whose misuse will inflame people and inhibit understanding rather than facilitating it. Careless use of “genocide” will be exposed, and the exposure will discredit the arguments most of its proponents want to make for advancing reconciliation. Scholars who argue that Canadians must get the history right if the country is to undo some of the worst mistakes in its past, sometimes then turn around and create a revised version of the past that is equally erroneous, though in a different way. And using “genocide” imprecisely not only discredits a scholar’s argument, it also debases the term itself and runs the danger of partially emptying it of its meaning and force. There is no better illustration of the perils of using the term genocide carelessly than the recent experience of Justice, now Senator, Murray Sinclair, Chief Commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission [TRC]. In a keynote talk to the workshop at the University of Manitoba in 2012 that preceded the production of Colonial Genocide in Indigenous North America, Sinclair referred to Canada’s Native residential schools as an example of genocide (CG, 278-9). He would come to reconsider his interpretation.

Colonial Genocide and A Benevolent Experiment contain innumerable examples of scholars who throw the term genocide around loosely. Although most of the contributors to these two volumes are credible researchers, there is wide variation in the care with which they approach their subjects. A recurrent deficiency in the Colonial Genocide collection is the failure to establish the applicability of the criteria in the United Nations Convention on Genocide to the subject under examination. Many who support the view that Native-newcomer history in general, and the history of residential schools in particular, reveal genocide at work simply assume that the term applies to their subject. This approach is particularly pronounced in an essay by University of Manitoba political scientist Keira Ladner, which not only creates a new term, “political genocide,” but simply takes it for granted, without discussion or analysis, that the country’s history of relations with Indigenous peoples is one of state genocide. But many other contributors are similarly casual in attributing the applicability of the UN criteria to their subject.

It is striking that the essays in Colonial Genocide that do take pains to examine their chosen topic in light of the UN standard do not conclude that genocide was involved. University of Mississippi anthropologist Robbie Ethridge, for example, in discussing the “Mississippian shatter zone,” notes that there was a ninety per cent die-off among the Native people but contends that “genocide” is not the correct term for what happened (50). Gros Ventre psychologist Joseph Gone similarly examines the grisly experience of the Gros Ventres, who declined by eighty per cent even though, unlike many other western US nations, they never fought the American army, and concludes that genocide is not applicable in their case (CG, 284). On the other hand, University of Guelph political scientist David MacDonald does provide a systematic argument that Canada’s residential schools were an instance of genocide while paying close attention the United Nations standard. MacDonald argues that Canada’s residential schools experience satisfied the UN criterion that refers to the forcible transfer of children from one group to another as genocide. Noting that there is no settled jurisprudence on how large a proportion of a people’s young must be coercively transferred to satisfy the criterion, he suggests that one-third, a widely accepted estimate of how many status First Nations children attended residential schools, is enough for the purpose (CG. 310). But then the complications set in. What is the target group whose children were transferred? MacDonald alludes repeatedly to “Aboriginal” students (CG, 308-9, 310, 311-13, 315, 316) rather than First Nations youth with status. If “Aboriginal” people, including numerous Métis and some Inuit, were the group whose children were sought to be transferred forcibly, then the proportion who attended a residential school falls well below one-third. If one-fifth or fewer “Aboriginal” children attended residential school, can the experience be judged as genocide? MacDonald’s essay, which at least attempts to address a central question, epitomizes several of the problems with speaking precisely about genocide in relation to residential schools.

Andrew Woolford, a political scientist at the University of Manitoba, takes a cautious comparative approach to a sample of boarding schools in New Mexico and Manitoba. He emphasizes “that genocide is conceived in this book as a process and not as a total outcome. In most cases, Indigenous groups were not wholly destroyed…”(BE, 5). At the outset he is scornful of authors who refer to the schools’ experience as “attempted cultural genocide” (BE 9), though by his conclusion he has retreated to referring to genocide “not as a legal concept but as a tool for tracing destructive relations…” (BE 298) In between, Woolford sifts an impressive body of evidence, documentary and oral, to describe and analyse the experiences of students at government-run schools in Albuquerque and Santa Fe in the US, and at the Presbyterian Portage la Prairie and Roman Catholic residential schools in Manitoba. His examination of the impact of discipline, student-staff interactions, and the roles played by local actors in the institutions provides the reader with insight into the complexity of experience the schools provided, albeit within a generally damaging environment for students.

Woolford contends that talking about genocide will assist in bringing North Americans to what is most needed, an appreciation of their complicity in the dismal schools history. That awareness will generate support for redress. He seems to agree with Joseph Gone’s suggestion that people use the term genocide “to harness the evaluative functions rather than the descriptive functions of the concept.” Aboriginal Canadian observers in particular believe that a stronger term than “colonization” or “racism” is needed to capture “the ethical enormity of systematic and coercive cultural assimilation”(CG, 285). Perhaps Murray Sinclair’s experience with using the term genocide is instructive. When he spoke to the workshop that led to Colonial Genocide in 2012 he also recounted how, after using the term genocide, he reached out “to a Jewish survivor of the Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald to ‘apologize’ for perhaps offending those who had experienced ‘true genocide’” (CG,279). And when the TRC that Sinclair chaired issued its report in 2015, it avoided the term “genocide” in favour of “cultural genocide.” The Commissioners had probably come to realize the importance of using an explosive term carefully. It is too bad that more of the contributors to these two thought-provoking volumes did not do likewise.

Colonial Genocide in Indigenous North America
A.J. Woolford, J. Benvenuto, and A.L. Hinton, editors
Durham, NC: Duke University Press 2014. 360 pp. $26.95 paper

This Benevolent Experiment: Indigenous Boarding Schools, Genocide, and Redress in Canada and the United States
Andrew Woolford
Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press 2015. 253 pp. $27.95 paper