Monday 18 June 2018

Genocide in the Far North: Canada 1950

Genocide in the Far North: Canada 1950

On June 11, 2018, Gloria Galloway published an article in the Globe and Mail (p. A9) entitled “Ahiarmiut ready for apology after several relocations.” According to Galloway, the Ahiarmiut are a small group of Inuit whom the Canadian government relocated about 100 km. from their original home in 1950, on the grounds that they were becoming too dependent on trade with federal employees at a radio tower near their home. They were “dropped on an island without food, shelter or tools.” To survive, they ate bark and whatever else they could get their hands on until winter came. Many died. In 1957, they were relocated again; this time they were given tents at their new location, as well as a “starvation box” that might feed them for a week. Some died again. There were three subsequent relocations.

Through their lawyer, Steve Cooper, survivors and their descendants have been asking for compensation, an apology, and a memorial since 2007.  According to Galloway, the government has finally agreed to settle, in part to bring “closure” to this event.

For over thirty years, I have argued in class and elsewhere that Indigenous peoples in Canada have been—and still are—the victims of cultural genocide.  But the case of the Ahiarmiut was not cultural genocide, it seems to me: it’s actual physical genocide. The way Canada’s government treated them is analogous to the Soviet Union’s deportation to Siberia in 1944 of several minorities groups including the Tartars, the Chechens, and ethnic Koreans. Trainloads of people were dumped without food, clothing and shelter, as a result of which up to fifty per cent died, just like the Ahiarmiut. Scholars of the topic generally recognize this as genocide.

You might ask, though, whether the term “genocide” can be applied to a group as small as the Ahiarmiut. Yes, it can. There is nothing in the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (UNGC) that specifies that a minimum number of victims must have been murdered. Moreover, the UNGC applies to the destruction of groups “in whole or in part”; the entire group doesn’t need to die for a deportation to be considered genocide.  In sociological terms, rather than legal, the brilliant scholar of comparative genocide, Helen Fein, has coined the term “genocide by attrition.” This means the genocide takes a while, starvation and disease doing the trick, rather than outright murder.  

I suspect there’s been a lot of genocide by attrition of Indigenous peoples in Canada. For example, in 2018 the Canadian government is still promising to remedy the situation in Grassy Narrows, Ontario, where Indigenous people are still suffering from mercury poisoning. We’ve known about this situation since at least 1985, when Anastasia M. Shkilnyk published her book about Grassy Narrows, A Poison Stronger than Love.

In legal terms, the only reason not to call the deportations of the Ahiarmiut genocide is the matter of intent. The UNGC specifies that actions constituting genocide must be accompanied by “an intent to destroy” the group in question. Perhaps Canadian bureaucrats did not intend that the Ahiarmiut should die. Perhaps they labored under the false illusion that Indigenous peoples could live “off the land,” even if they were dumped somewhere they had never lived before and where they had no shelter, no tools, and no food to tide them over.

When Canada deported the Ahiarmiut people, it was violating its own international commitments. Canada voted for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) on December 10, 1948. Granted, this was a declaration, not a legal treaty, but it implied a commitment to all human rights, including rights to adequate food and protection from starvation, the right to housing, and the right to health. Canada also signed the UNGC Convention on November 28, 1949, although it did not ratify it (the second step to accepting legal obligations) until September 3, 1952.

So had anyone actually noticed in 1950 that Canada was committing genocide against the Ahiarmiut, the government could have argued that it had not yet ratified the UNGC, so it was in the clear. And the government could have argued that although it accepted the UDHR rights to health, shelter and food in principle, it did not yet have to provide them.

More likely, though, no one noticed and no one cared. Indigenous people at the time were disposable. The government could move them when and where it wanted, for whatever reason it wanted. Moreover, from 1927 to 1951 it was illegal for Canadian Indigenous peoples to organize in their own interests, so it was impossible for them to do anything about it.

If ever a group of Indigenous people were entitled to apology, memorialization, and compensation, it is the Ahiarmiut. But more than that, I think they are entitled to an acknowledgement by the Canadian government that they were victims of genocide.