Historians Explain Their Objection to Charge of Genocide Against Canada on Treatment of Indigenous Peoples

There are no grounds for the Canadian Historical Association’s claim that all Canada’s historians support genocide allegation, open letter says
By Isaac Teo
Isaac Teo
Isaac Teo
Isaac is a reporter based in Toronto.
August 17, 2021 Updated: August 17, 2021

The charge of genocide against Canada in its treatment of indigenous peoples is “factually wrong,” says a historian and international studies professor at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.

“Systematic and deliberate killing on a widespread scale is an absolutely essential component of genocide, and it doesn’t exist in this case,” said Jack Cunningham in an interview.

“It’s important to understand where we came from and what our actual misdeeds are historically, and the charge of genocide is one that I think undercuts the very legitimacy of Canada as a nation state.”

Cunningham is one of over 50 historians and academics who recently signed a letter expressing their “grave disappointment” with a statement issued by the Canadian Historical Association (CHA) on the occasion of Canada Day.

The statement claimed there is a “broad consensus” among historical experts that Canada’s history “fully warrants our use of the word genocide.”

The historians’ open letter, which was published in the Literary Review of Canada and Le Journal de Montreal, disputes the claim of a consensus.

“The Council of the CHA claims that ‘the existing historical scholarship’ makes it ‘abundantly clear’ that Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples was genocidal and that there was ‘broad scholarly consensus’ as to the evidence of ‘genocidal intent.’ The CHA Council also attacks the profession in stating that historians have turned a blind eye to the tragedies that have marked Canadian history,” the letter reads.

“There are no grounds for such a claim that purports to represent the views of all of Canada’s professional historians.”

Epoch Times Photo
Jack Cunningham, an international studies professor at Muck of Global Affairs & Public Policy at the University of Toronto. (Courtesy of Jack Cunningham)

‘Political Statement’

Whitney Lackenbauer, a history professor at Trent University who also signed the letter, says the statement by the CHA, which represents 650 professional historians across the country, is “very strong and straightforward narrative to try and emphasize aspects of colonial violence and assimilation.”

“This is a very strong political statement by a select number of leaders of a historical association,” he told The Epoch Times.

“The political purpose of this was to set up a false label that everybody thinks like this, and that everybody must think like this to be in good standing within the historical profession.”

Lackenbauer points to the works of prominent historians J. R. Miller, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Saskatchewan, and Donald B. Smith, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Calgary, both of whom for decades have been writing about the relationship between the indigenous peoples and Canadians.

“They’ve been writing on this issue since the 1970s and have taken a stand to say certainly the Canadian state has been guilty of assimilation and coercion towards indigenous people, but they made a pretty interesting argument to say that it’s not genocide. And what [CHA’s statement] is trying to do is make sure that there is no space for those voices,” he said.

Epoch Times Photo
Whitney Lackenbauer, a history professor at Trent University. (Courtesy of Whitney Lackenbauer)

In October 2019, Miller and Smith co-authored a review of a book by political science professor David B. MacDonald titled “The Sleeping Giant Awakens: Genocide, Indian Residential Schools, and the Challenge of Conciliation,” refuting MacDonald’s claim of genocide.

“A critical reader must ask whether ‘genocide’ is truly the word for Canada’s Indigenous policies. The Genocide Convention defines it as acts ‘committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.’ Both intent and action must be present for destructive state actions to be considered genocide. The problem in the Canadian case is that, while government policies were often terribly destructive to Indigenous people, those actions were never undertaken with the intent to destroy an Indigenous group,” they wrote.

“The goal of policies we now consider horrific—forced attendance at residential schools, limitations on mobility, reshaping economies and systems of governance, and suppressing languages and spiritual practices—was to control Indigenous people but not to eradicate them. Canada sought first to persuade and later to compel Indigenous peoples to live, work, worship, and govern themselves as Euro-Canadians did. If Canada had wanted to destroy them, it would not have devoted so much effort to trying to turn them into Euro-Canadians.”

Historians’ Stance Refuted

When asked to comment on the history professors’ position, CHA president Steven High referred to an open letter signed by a group he described as “Indigenous historians who hold research chairs,” which he said “speaks to what is at stake in this debate.”

The letter, signed by five research chairs or directors in indigenous studies at Canadian universities and two other professors, refutes the historians’ argument in their open letter. 

“Recent interpretations of Canadian history, put forth by several scholars who are signatories to the Open Letter [i.e. this letter], assert that the goal of the federal government’s Indigenous policy was to make Indigenous people disappear administratively, culturally, and physically: to be no more. This is genocide,” the letter reads.

“The CHA council’s statement is grounded in that recent historic scholarship and is shaped by the time we live in, where the truths about residential schools, and other genocidal policies and practices impacting Indigenous child welfare and health, were designed specifically to eradicate First Nations, Metis, and Inuit people and destroy their Nations.”

The letter went on to say: “As the CHA statement made clear, ‘genocidal intent has been amply established in the historical scholarship…’ and that ‘There is a broad consensus on this point among historical experts’ and that ‘The existing historical scholarship, based on extensive research into governmental archives, missionary records, archaeological studies, and written and oral testimony of Survivors of residential schools, the 60s Scoop, and families of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls, make this conclusion abundantly clear.'”

Danger of Misrepresenting History

Christopher Dummitt, another signatory of the open letter objecting to the CHA’s position and a history professor at Trent University, says it’s important that Canadians trust their institutions and historians to tell them the truth, and the statement by CHA could threaten that trust.

“If you look at the language of the CHA’s statement, it’s couched in this theoretical politicized jargon. Once you adopt the perspective that the language suggests, it gives you all your answers and you almost don’t have to do research, because once you adopted this perspective of interpreting the past through the lens of settler colonialism, then you got your answers already made up for you,” he said.

“The CHA is presenting Canadians with a kind of single unified idea of truth. I think that’s dangerous because it’s not correct.”

Academic freedom is also at risk, Dummitt noted, as the statement makes it “almost threatening” to any potential new historians or history student who might find that their research disagrees with what the CHA claims.

“But now they will be faced with the fact that their main professional body has said ‘no, no, this is the answer,” he said. “Can they reasonably do their research? Can they expect to get a job, to get a scholarship … if they come to a different conclusion themselves?”

Epoch Times Photo
Christopher Dummitt, a history professor at Trent University. (Courtesy of Christopher Dummitt)

‘Read Widely’

Lackenbauer notes that much of the discussion around the reports produced by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) have been “hijacked” over the word “genocide.”

“Unfortunately, in a lot of Canadian media the discussions have become more focused on the general narrative or general question about genocide, rather than looking at the individual elements within that report and the individual calls to action, which are very concrete, very strong practical steps that we can take to produce reconciliation,” he said.

“I think answering those calls to action does not require that everybody agree to the label of genocide.”

Cunningham says Canadians can consider the TRC reports as “merely one document with a clear point of view,” and advises familiarizing themselves with the historical record and the scholarly literature to come to a balanced view.

“In the last little while there have been a number of journal articles raising this controversy that are worth looking at,” he said. “So I would say read widely on the controversy before pronouncing an opinion on it.”

Isaac Teo
Isaac Teo
Isaac is a reporter based in Toronto.