August 31st, 2017

An open letter to the CBC: words mean something, and "genocide" means a LOT

Dear CBC,

I have been following some of your coverage of the debate regarding whether to remove the name of Sir John A. Macdonald from public schools.  While the debate is a complex one with a great deal to consider, I must take issue with your most recent article by Tori Cress, in particular this sentence: "But when it comes to schools named for Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada's first prime minister, that sidenote ends up being several pages long, detailing a legacy of residential schools, racism, colonialism and genocide."

The use of the word "genocide" in this particular context is one that I find highly inappropriate, bordering on offensive.

As a Russian Jew, my family knows all too well what it is to be the victims of a genocide.  Every family story of my grandparents' generation when I was growing up ended in the words "and they were killed by the Nazis."  During World War II, Jews were rounded up and taken to concentration and work camps.  In the work camps, they were worked to death under conditions that made American slavery look gentle by comparison - in the concentration camps, they were put into gas chambers by the dozens at a time and murdered.  Six million of us died, and by the time the war ended, there were countries in Europe where Jews could no longer hold religious services because there were too few of them to make the required quorum, or "minyan."

Nothing even close to this has happened on Canadian soil.

In 1994, the Tutsi of Rwanda became victims of a genocide.  The weapon of choice was the machete.  Between half a million to a million were murdered by the Hutu within mere weeks, hundreds of thousands of widows raped, and hundreds of thousands of children made orphans.  Again, nothing like this has ever happened on Canadian soil.

Between 1914-1923, the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire became victims of genocide.  Those who weren't massacred outright were sent on death marches.  The death toll is approximated at 1.5 million.  Again, nothing like this has ever happened on Canadian soil.

In the 19th century, the native American tribes in the United States were subjected to a war of genocide by the American government.  Entire tribes were driven off their land and reduced to small populations of survivors by the U.S. Army in a campaign of extermination.  I can't say that nothing like this has ever happened on Canadian soil, because it has - in the 17th century, the Iroquois waged a war of genocide against the Huron, and assisted by the French, in 1649 the entire Huron nation was reduced to a few thousand survivors who had become refugees living under French rule.

There can be no doubt that much of the Canadian government's relations with our native peoples since Confederation has been shameful.  There can be no doubt that the Canadian government's actions included residential schools, racism, and colonialism.  But genocide is NOT among the government's sins, and to compare what has happened to our indiginous peoples in the last 150 years to the wholesale slaughter and extermination of millions is entirely insensitive and inconsiderate to those of us who actually HAVE lost loved ones and family members during very real genocides.

EDIT: It has been brought to my attention that there was a policy of forced relocation in Western Canada implemented by the Sir John A. Macdonald government using a starvation tactic that certainly comes close to the UN definition of genocide, if not crossing the line into it. If indeed the intent of this policy was the physical and/or biological destruction of the native tribes in question (as opposed just being a pressure tactic to force them into submission), then it does indeed cross the line into genocide, and my objection is withdrawn.