Thursday 13 June 2019

Yes, it’s Genocide: The Supplementary Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls

Canada is currently embroiled in a debate about whether the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls should have used the word “genocide” to describe our federal, provincial and municipal governments’ past and current treatment of Indigenous peoples. Perhaps this word is too strong and inaccurate.

Sadly and horrifically, some missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls

Many horrible events are not genocide. Warfare is not genocide. Apartheid in South Africa was not genocide. The trans-Atlantic slave trade was not genocide.  Torture is not genocide.

In international law, genocide refers to “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.” This is the definition in the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

One crucial word in this definition is intent.  Did or do Canadian authorities, in the past or the present, intend to destroy the “racial” or ethnic group of Indigenous Canadians, in whole or in part? 

But this is not only the question behind the Inquiry’s decision to describe official Canadian treatment of Indigenous peoples as genocide. The central question it asked was, if you consider all the policies of our governments regarding Indigenous peoples since the time of first European settlement, can  you argue that Canada’s treatment of Indigenous women and girls (and of Indigenous men and boys) is genocide?

The Supplementary Report, “A Legal Analysis of Genocide,” explain the Inquiry’s decision to describe Canada’s treatment of its Indigenous peoples as genocide. It does not rely simply on the text of the 1948 Convention against Genocide. Rather, it carefully reviews legal and social scientific analyses of genocide over the last three decades. It especially refers to decisions by the international tribunals established by the United Nations to try individuals accused of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

The Report explains that before the 1948 law was adopted, there was discussion at the UN on whether to prohibit cultural genocide. Canada along with other countries that had Indigenous populations actively pushed not to define cultural genocide as a crime, and it succeeded.  So right from the start, 71 years ago, Canada knew it was vulnerable to charges of genocide.

At that time, no Indigenous peoples were represented at the UN, so there was no one to present an Indigenous perspective on genocide. Nor was there a gendered perspective on the crime. That came much later, with decisions on the gendered aspects of genocide at the Yugoslavia and Rwanda tribunals.

The Report also notes that as opposed to international law, Canadian law pertaining to genocide (the 2000 Crimes against Humanity and War Crimes Act) refers to acts of omission as well as commission. So if Canada neglects its Indigenous peoples as they are subjected to genocidal acts, that can be considered part of genocide.

The Report explains that genocide is not always a single event, such as the prototypical Nazi genocide against the Jews and Roma of Europe, or the genocide against Tutsi in Rwanda in 1994. Colonial genocide is a composite act. It is composed of the cumulative effect of many discrete actions, such as dispossession from land, neglect of starving indigenous populations, and kidnapping of children.

In adopting this view, the Report argues that analysis of the treatment of Indigenous people must consider the long-term effects of structural violence. It’s not enough to “add up” some discrete events and then try to figure out if the total is genocide. 

The Report also maintains that genocide does not refer only to the deliberate murder of some or all members of a particular social group. It also refers to the destruction of a group as a social unit. If members of the group are so dispersed from each other, or if their culture, languages, or traditions are so undermined that they can’t act together as a cohesive social unit, then that is genocide. This argument derives from the 1948 Convention, which refers to destruction of groups as groups.

Finally, and extremely importantly, the Report analyses the requirement of intent. It argues that when dealing with states rather than individuals as possible perpetrators of genocide, state policy indicates intent. It is not necessary to go into the “minds” of individuals holding power to see if they intend to destroy Indigenous peoples as a social group.

All these arguments make a compelling case that Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples has been and still is genocide.

Monday 3 June 2019

becoming by Michelle Obama: Book Note

Becoming by Michelle Obama: Book Note

The other day I read Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming. It’s in three parts, recounting her childhood and student years; her marriage to Barack Obama and early years of motherhood; and her years in the White House as First Lady.

Michelle Obama grew up on the South Side of Chicago. Her mother stayed home when she and her brother were small, supported by her father, a city employee who kept on working for years even after he contracted multiple sclerosis. She notes how segregated her neighborhood became during her childhood. In first grade she was in a racially mixed class; by sixth grade, as a result of white flight, her class was almost entirely African American.

Michelle grew up with a large extended family, many of whose members were seriously affected by racism. Several of her uncles were skilled tradesmen who could not find permanent well-paying jobs because the white-controlled unions excluded African Americans. Both her grandfathers were in turn the grandchildren of enslaved people. One grandfather mistrusted white people so much that he would not even go to the dentist.

Ms. Obama attended Harvard Law, and started out life as a corporate lawyer. I had thought that she left the practice of law to subordinate herself to her husband’s political ambitions, but I was wrong.  She dropped out of corporate law to work for NGOs, taking a 50% cut in salary. At one point she got a job at the exclusive University of Chicago. There she startled her boss when she told him that although she grew up on Chicago’s South Side, right where the University is situated, she had never considered applying there, as it was so cut off from its own neighborhood.

Instead Michelle followed her older brother to Princeton, where she spent much of her time hanging out at what was then known as the “Third World Center,” a meeting place for African-American students where she felt more at home than among the white elite students. Once she shared a dorm room with two white girls, but one suddenly disappeared. Years later she learned that her roommate’s mother had vigorously lobbied Princeton to move her daughter away from an African-American roommate.

Throughout the book, Michelle stressed her role as a mother and a woman. In part, this was to play down her identity as a lawyer and a thinker: she had to be careful not to incur the kind of wrath Hillary Clinton endured 20 years earlier when she tried to help her husband design a national health care policy. But she is also strongly committed to the welfare of children. While First Lady she developed some ostensibly non-political programs. One, called “Let’s Move” encouraged children to exercise more. Another, called “Join Forces” aimed to help military veterans and their families. She also campaigned to improve American children’s diets, working especially to improve the quality of school lunches. This last campaign bordered on the political, as improvements in school lunches could cut corporate fast-food profits.

Ms. Obama also had to be very careful about what she said about US politics.  She mentioned Donald Trump in the book only twice. Once was to say that she would never forgive him for endangering her children’s lives when he claimed that Barack Obama was not a US citizen, thus encouraging right-wing extremists. The other was at the end of the book, when Donald Trump was inaugurated. She stopped smiling at the inauguration ceremony, when she noticed the sea of white faces in front of her, as compared to the two inauguration ceremonies for her husband.

I was struck reading the memoir by how sexualized Michelle was. The front picture on her book shows her with one shoulder uncovered. It’s a lovely picture, with her beautiful smile, but why the bare shoulder?  Perhaps for the same reason that while First Lady she had to devote an enormous amount of time, energy and money to her looks, with a personal hairdresser, makeup artist and stylist. It’s possible no other First Lady had to spend so much on these relatively trivial aspects. There was even a debate among her advisers when she decided to get bangs in her hair. But of course if you are a woman, looks are never quite as trivial as when you are a man. And as an African American, Ms. Obama had to be far more careful than any First Lady of European descent about her looks, so that she did not trip any stereotypes about African American women.

This is a frank, warm memoir, about being a woman and being an African American. Worth reading.