The Meaning of Genocide

“We recognized the need for a national public inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and we have commissioners who came back with findings of fact and with calls to action.

“We thank them for their work, we applaud their work and we accept their findings, including that what happened amounts to genocide. There are many debates ongoing around words and use of words. Our focus as a country, as leaders, as citizens, must be on the steps we take to put an end to this situation.” –Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, 4 June 2019


When Justin Trudeau publicly accepted that the murders and disappearances of Canadian Indigenous women and girls “amounts to genocide” he set off a storm.

Before, I thought I knew what “genocide” meant, both in its ordinary sense and in its international legal sense. Now, I am not so sure.

The commissioners of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) inquiry do not use the term lightly, nor does the prime minister.

At the same time, to hear myself called out for participating in genocide against my neighbors is a shock, counter-intuitive, and at first glance, downright offensive.

I am pretty sure that the crowd celebrating Graeme Gibson’s honorary degree from CBU and anticipating a Silver Donald Cameron interview with Margaret Atwood at the Boardmore Theatre last Friday did not feel the same things when Emma Stevens sang “Blackbird” in Mi’kmaq that a German audience would have felt about a Jewish woman singing in Yiddish c.1933. Before they played the song that won them a shout-out from Paul McCartney, Stevens and her teacher Carter Chaisson joined fiddler Colin Grant in performing a love song for Cape Breton, “My Unama’ki” (My Cape Breton) , written by Stevens and her Eskasoni classmates with Chaisson. Whatever the CBU audience’s warm response to Emma Stevens entailed, it was not the overt hatred of the Third Reich.

And yet, here we are, called out as genocidal by the MMIWG commissioners and our own head of government.

How to make sense of it all?


I propose that part of understanding this will be a review of “Genocide” through the lens of Canadian history. I will explain that in a moment.

Red dress, Potlotek First Nation, 9 June 2019

First, though, let us recall that the witnesses at the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls have been incredibly generous. Their gift was to show up and talk about the greatest sadness in their lives with little reason to expect they’d be taken seriously. To speak before a commission constituted by the Canadian government about a fundamental injustice committed by that very institution is more than we should ever expect from the families and friends of the murdered and missing. And yet, they came, they spoke and they offered their sorrow hoping that we might be able to hear them, maybe even to listen.

The Report of the Commission is a further act of hope: the commissioners offer those of us who do not have first-hand experience of Indigenous communities a chance to enter into their reality in terms that we can grasp through our various forms of privilege and prejudice. This is important: this report asks us to read, think and talk about experiences that are not our own. Commissions of inquiry often have such an aspect of truth and reconciliation built in. The hearing and gathering of evidence opens the raw experience of injustice to the wider community’s eyes, and the final report aims to broaden awareness and understanding. The efficacy of the inquiry is in the process as well as the recommendations and calls for action — in that sense, the MMIWG inquiry is intended to communicate to privileged people like me the unjust suffering and vulnerability of girls and women and 2SLGBTQQIA people, with whom I have limited direct personal contact.

The MMIWG Commission has certainly succeeded in generating interest. The prime minister’s acceptance of the charge of genocide has galvanized an ambient sense of discomfort about Canada-First Nations relations into a direct accusation: Canada (and we in it) has committed genocide against Indigenous women and girls. So, what does that mean for each of us, and for the nation? And what will it mean for the future vitality of indigenous people?


Keeping these questions in mind, I propose to read this report at multiple levels.

At an urgent and immediate level, I will read and re-read this report as I have the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report: in a spirit of listening to the voices of those who speak out of their suffering and try to communicate, maybe even offering us a chance to change.

I will let this report color my vision of the social world around me. Twice in the past couple of weeks I have noticed young Indigenous women hitchhiking on Cape Breton highways. I’ve been thinking about the vulnerability of these hitchhikers, and their optimism—not to mention their need to get places—and my wish that hitchhiking was safe for them and for everybody. But what can move this beyond banal sentimentality towards greater security and liberty for people now living in fear?

And I will re-think my Canadian identity with this report in mind. Coming as it did amid our commemoration of the D-Day landing, the prime minister’s admission reconfigures Canada’s place in the world (as CBC commentator Robyn Urback notes), but also in history.

This, too, is personal. I grew up an “air force brat” as we called ourselves. All the dads in our air-base community thought of themselves as “peacekeepers.” A few months before he died, my Dad showed me through the remarkable Greenwood Aviation Museum (created and run by Dad and his retired colleagues). In the display of the Argus—long-distance surveillance airplane—Dad stopped at one of the places he often sat, as a navigator who also had the responsibility of releasing bombs. Gesturing at the release button, Dad said: “I’d stare at that wondering if I’d be able to hit it when the order came.”

“Wow, Dad,” I said, “Did you ever come close?”

Dad laughed: “No. In 27 years, I never flew an armed mission.”


My dad was a Canadian cold warrior. For him, the Geneva Convention was a universal moral code that he devoted his life to keeping and sharing around the world. Much of his career was spent on long missions over the North Atlantic tracking Soviet submarines. Our family slide shows were filled with white-flecked, grey-green expanses dotted with dark, cylindrical shapes: “That’s a pod of whales!” Dad would exclaim—ever more naturalist than warrior.

“Oh, sorry, no [crestfallen]. That’s a rendez-vous of Soviet subs.”

My father and his generation of military men (flight crew were men) joined the forces in the decade following World War II. I was raised on tales of the heroic Canadian sacrifice to save civilization from Nazism, and because we were air force, we emphasized the particularly magnificent contribution of Canadian-trained aircrew to the defense of Britain. I revere this as much now as ever—though in a more troubled way, mixed with shame and horror over the bombing of civilians at Dresden, in Japan and anywhere Allied bombs struck.

To excite people to massive self-sacrifice, a kind of genocidal rhetoric is always deployed: one kills “Krauts,” “Japs,” and “Gooks” to rid the world of them, doesn’t one?

By the Cold War, in the late seventies and early eighties, we didn’t even use de-humanizing terms for the Soviets, and in fact my father and his friends held an annual “Red-tie luncheon” where they toasted the same Soviet submariners that they chased from the sky, wearing Communist-colored ties in their honor.

A crucial part of my father’s explanation of Canada’s role in World War II was always the urgent need to end Nazi atrocities against the Jewish people. Dad self-consciously embraced a paradox: nothing justified bombing civilians, but if anything could even begin to mitigate that evil, it was the fight to interrupt that genocide.

Red dress, Potlotek First Nation, 9 June 2019

In the Canadian Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act, genocide is defined as:

[…] an act or omission committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, an identifiable group of persons, as such, that, at the time and in the place of its commission, constitutes genocide according to customary international law or conventional international law or by virtue of its being criminal according to the general principles of law recognized by the community of nations, whether or not it constitutes a contravention of the law in force at the time and in the place of its commission.” [emphasis mine]

Next time, I’ll look at how the MMIWG commission defines genocide and how it suits the evidence they found.


Apiksiktuaqn (To forgive, be forgiven)

A friend of mine in Eskasoni Reservation
Entered the woods and fasted for eight days.
I awaited the eight days to see him
I wanted to know what he learned from the sune’wit.
To my mind this is the ultimate for a cause
Learning the ways, an open door, derive.
At the time he did it, it was for
The people, the oncoming pow-wow
The journey to know, rationalize, spiritual growth.
When he drew near, a feeling like a parent on me
He was my son, I wanted to listen.
He talked fast, at times with a rush of words
As if to relate all, but sadness took over.
I hugged him and said, “Don’t talk if it is too sad.”
The spell was broken, he could say no more.
The one thing I heard him say, “Apiksiktuaqn nuta’ykw”,
For months it stayed on my mind.
Now it may go away as I write
Because this is the past, the present, the future.

I wish this would happen to all of us
Unity then will be the world over
My friend carried a message
Let us listen.


(from Rita Joe’s 1999 collection We are the Dreamers,
published by Breton Books, Wreck Cove, Nova Scotia)


Susan Dodd

Susan Dodd is an associate professor of Humanities at the University of King’s College in Halifax. She is the author of The Ocean Ranger: remaking the promise of oil (Fernwood, 2012), co-editor (with Neil Robertson) of Unity of Opposites? Hegel and Canadian Political Thought (University of Toronto Press, forthcoming) and author of The Halifax Explosion: the Apocalypse of Samuel Prince (a commentary on Catastrophe and Social Change), Underhill Books. She can also be heard in a recent episode of Canadaland’s Commons, “CRUDE #6 — The Devil in the Deep Blue Sea”