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Canada’s “Genocide” — Goldilocks, Family Resemblance & Concept Creep

The Final Report from National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) was announced a few weeks ago, and it concluded that Canada had been and continues to be engaged in a

race-based genocide of Indigenous Peoples, including First Nations, Inuit and Métis, which especially targets women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people.

Furthermore, they state that this ‘genocide has been empowered by colonial structures, evidenced notably by the Indian Act, the Sixties Scoop, residential schools and breaches of human and Indigenous rights, leading directly to the current increased rates of violence, death, and suicide in Indigenous populations’.

There is a lot to say about the Final Report. Firstly, if they’re studying missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, why isn’t it a ‘femicide’ instead of a genocide? Well, because they added the 2SLGBTQQIA acronym, which stands for “Two Spirit, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questionning, Intersex, and Asexual] people”, which seems to be an unwarranted expansion of scope as they would have to include men into the report on women and girls. There is also their retroactive treatment of the law, as well as the ambiguity of mens rea, and the way they jump from lex ferenda (or what the law should be) to lex lata (what the law is). Despite these, I’m going to restrict myself to the question: are they justified in their classification of the MMIWG phenomenon as ‘genocide’? In doing so, I’ll provide the definition of genocide, as well as a schema of common features. I’ll then explicate the Goldilocks Problem and explain the concepts of Family Resemblance and Concept Creep as they all apply to the Final Report’s claim about Canada being guilty of a present-day genocide.

Definition of Genocide

According to the UN, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

  • Killing members of the group;
  • Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
  • Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
  • Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
  • Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Apart from this definition, there is an instructive format for predicting genocides as they emerge from preceding activities. Created by Gregory Stanton, former Research Professor in Genocide Studies and Prevention at George Mason University, his 8 Stages of Genocide suggests a series of ‘predictable but not inexorable’ developmental features of genocide. These stages are listed and briefly described below.

Eight Stages of Genocide

  1. Classify in-group and out-group – i.e., Hutu from Tutsi;
  2. Create and impose symbols to identify in-group and out-group – i.e., ID cards or yellow stars;
  3. Exclude out-group from full civil rights – i.e., apartheid or segregation;
  4. Dehumanise out-group – i.e., equate them to animals, vermin or insects
  5. Organise militia and/or special military units for killings – i.e., Janjaweed militia, Schutzstaffel; 
  6. Polarisation via propaganda – i.e., kill moderates, broadcasting hateful propaganda; 
  7. Plans for deliberate killing of out-group are created; members of out-group separated – i.e., land and property are expropriated, forced displacement; and,
  8. Deliberate killing of out-group in mass murder – i.e., often called ‘extermination’ due to dehumanisation of out-group.

It is important to note that the UN definition of genocide makes no mention of the word ‘State’, meaning that the actions do not (necessarily) need to be conducted with explicit governmental support. Additionally, intent is said to be directly proven from statements or orders by the perpetrators; however, more often, it must be ‘deduced’ from the systematic pattern of their acts, a pattern that could only arise out of specific intent. These 8 Stages would be indicative of such a pattern.

The Goldilocks Problem

The name refers to the tale of The Three Bears, in which a little girl named Goldilocks tastes three different bowls of porridge and finds that she prefers porridge that is neither too hot nor too cold but has a temperature that is ‘just right’.

For our purposes, the Goldilocks Problem refers to the criteria for demarcation. It asks if our system is deemed ‘too cold’ by ruling-out warranted cases, or is it ‘too hot’ by ruling-in unwarranted ones? Or is it ‘just right’. Now, this effort of demarcation is tougher than one may like. Take ‘science’, for instance. What counts as a science, and what counts as a pseudo-science? When asked this question, we must distinguish between what counts as a science and what counts as a pseudo-science in a motivated and non-arbitrary way.

Now, not every non-science is a pseudo-science: art, engineering and logic are not science, but that doesn’t mean they’re pseudo-sciences since they do not claim to possess the same epistemic status as science for the reasons that science gets that status, whatever those reasons happen to be.

Pseudo-sciences, however, claim to possess the same epistemic status as sciences for the reasons that science gets that status, and yet does not merit such status. Astrology being a classic example.

I cannot get into the demarcation problem, here, suffice to say that issues of criteria, merit and status are certain to follow in the discussion on genocide.

Family Resemblance

The Principle of Family Resemblance states that things which could be thought to be connected by one essential common feature may in fact be connected by a series of overlapping similarities.

This idea comes from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophical analysis of language wherein he explains the plurality of languages via an analogy to the plurality of games.

When you look at what are considered games; games played with balls, cards, sticks, gambling, Olympic tournaments, martial arts, in groups or alone, etc., one notices that there isn’t necessarily a single thing that all games have in common, but rather there is a series of relationships that criss-cross to form a constellation of similarities. These resemblances are comparable to the resemblances that members of a family have to one another, hence the term ‘family resemblance’.

Concept Creep

Concept creep refers to the expansion of a concept via semantic shift that dilates the original meaning of the term. There are two sorts of expansion: ‘horizontal’, which captures qualitatively different examples than before, and ‘vertical’, which captures milder and less severe examples than was originally the case.

Let’s take ‘trauma’ as an example. This concept has changed significantly; initially it meant severe physical injury, but then the term expanded to include distressing events that were beyond the scope of normal human experience like torture or being shell-shocked in war. Later, trauma began to encompass distressing events that occur within the scope of normal human experience like learning about a death or serious injury of a close family member. So here we see the horizontal shift from physical injury to psychological injury, and the vertical shift to include more examples of distress.

Now, words can have fluid meanings, and semantics can shift over time, but it is important to know what a word has commonly meant in order to understand how it has been changed. Sometimes words change for good reason, sometimes they are changed out of good intentions, but sometimes they’re changed for political reasons that are not firmly rooted in either.


With these concepts in mind, let us look at the features of genocides, past and present, and see what similarities crop up and disappear. Let’s make a family. (This list certainly isn’t exhaustive, though I tried to incorporate a wider array of examples than are accepted by the Canadian state which only accepts five). The list is organised from oldest, to most recent.

Now that we have this list of genocides, what is common to the phenomenon? Here, I’ll apply the 8 Stages of Genocide to see what is found in common. Not all of the above features apply to each of the listed genocides in the same way — how each of the Stages were executed, methods used, etc., vary — but the constellations formed by the genocidal events and their applicable features do show a family resemblance.

What we see is that the above examples all share:

(1) Classify in-group and out-group;

(5) Organise militia and/or special military units for killings;

(7) Plans for deliberate killing of out-group are created; members of out-group separated, and;

(8) Deliberate killing of out-group in mass murder

This demarcation is a qualification for what can be ‘genocide’. Has the MMIWG Final Report shown that it has met the qualifications? Is the MMIGW a competitor?

I’ll try to be charitable to the proponents of the MMIWG genocide idea: the Stages of genocide that could be remotely applicable to the MMIWG Report are 1,2,3,4,6.

To obtain the above features, I interpreted:

(1) Classify in-group and out-group: to include the category of Indigenous Peoples/Indian as being opposed to Canadian/Colonial, and colonial history that did demarcate these two groups from one another coupled with the notion that Canadian/Colonial is superior to the Indigenous/Indian;

(2) Create and impose symbols to identify in-group and out-group: to include government-issued ID cards for ‘Status-Indians’ under the Indian Act;

(3) Exclude out-group from full civil rights: to include the pre and post-Confederate disqualification from the franchise;

(4) Dehumanise out-group: to include the various assimilationist processes that were imposed upon Indigenous peoples such that citizenship and enfranchisement were contingent on Indigenous peoples relinquishing their traditions and cultures, such as An Act to Encourage the Gradual Civilization of the Indian tribes in this Province (1857), and Residential Schools (1840-1996) which meant to ‘to kill the Indian in the child’, and;

(6) Polarisation via propaganda: to include (4)

Now, even this is too charitable and was only possible by utilising more radical interpretations of the features that involve concept creep and the historical accrual of past injustices and going beyond the scope of the MMIWG Investigation.

Family Resemblance, Goldilocks & MMIWG

Back to Family Resemblance, and the Goldilocks Problem.

We see that the MMIWG phenomenon does share some features of genocide: there is an out-group, it is identified, it had been excluded from full civil rights, and it was subject to dehumanisation and polarisation. The problem is that it also lacks key features that all genocides share: the plans for deliberate killing of the out-group, along with the actual deliberate killing of out-group in mass murder. Now, there is the concept of cultural genocide, and Canada’s Residential School system has been described as an example of it — but the MMIWG Report states that the Canadian state has been found guilty of committing a ‘deliberate, race, identity and gender-based genocide’. Full stop. With such a strong claim, they don’t leave much wiggle room – unless they admit to equivocating.

Now, there are undeniably problems that Indigenous women and girls suffer: they are five-and-a-half times more likely to be murdered than their non-Indigenous counterparts, and since the 1960s many have gone missing and their cases were never solved. At least 1,181 MMIWG cases exist, and it is certain that there are many more, but even though Indigenous women do disproportionately suffer violence and death, the violence and death isn’t existential nor targeted – which is a key component present in the other genocides listed.

In fact, the only facets of MMIWG that are close to the 8 Features of Genocide are the assimilationist practices that deprived Indigenous people of their culture and traditions in (3), (4) & (6). These, however, really collapse into one: the exclusion from full civil rights that was predicated on the belief that Indigenous peoples were not full British subjects by virtue of being Indigenous. This, however, has passed, and has been recognised – and, to my mind is outside of the scope if MMIWG which looks at cases from 1980-2012.

So, I conclude that it fails the Family Resemblance Principle. What of the Goldilocks Problem? Is it too cold, too hot or, just right?

When assessing the MMIWG phenomenon, we don’t see it meeting the criteria for genocide without having to expand the understanding of genocide by resorting to politically-motivated tactics, such as piggybacking on past injustices and weaving a seamless tapestry of inter-generational trauma that not only transmits the suffering of past victims to their descendants, but the genocidal intent of past perpetrators — whether they be ‘individual masterminds’ or the ‘burgeoning nation-state’ with federalist ambitions, as the Final Report states.

What we do see, however, is that poor Indigenous peoples are suffering from trauma — inter-generational or otherwise — and dying at disproportionate rates with these deaths being ignored by the law enforcement in large part because of the impoverishment of the victims that is predicated on past injustices. But when looking closer, we don’t see genocidal intent, organisation and activity. Instead, we see apathetic attitudes of law enforcement, maybe even racist law enforcement, and the faulty belief held by past and present governments that the deaths, murders and disappearances were merely a matter of policing, and not linked to the social ills faced by Indigenous women and their communities.

But this is what is being called ‘genocide’, and if we’re to assent to such a claim, then what else are we to call ‘genocide’? What other cases are we to consider? A reasonable candidate to my mind could be the Opioid Crisis in the US.

The Opioid Crisis has killed over a million Americans since the 90’s when the prescription opiate Oxycontin was first released on the market. The history of the Crisis is one of greed, corruption, and indifference embedded in an alliance of private and governmental interests such as Big Pharma, medicine, public institutions and law enforcement that hooked Americans on powerfully addictive drugs, and that let the opioid makers get away with it.

There is persistent blame and demonisation foisted on the overdose victims, addicts, and their communities — a significant proportion of which are poor working class people, mostly men, and predominately White, though Indigenous Americans face the highest level of addiction.

Michael Schatman, director of research and network development at Boston Pain Care and editor in chief of the Journal of Pain Research, has even called the Crisis a ‘genocide of people with chronic pain’. Talk about concept creep!

But why not consider the Crisis a genocide? Because the victims do not make the right kind of protected class? Then why not expand the classes to be more inclusive? Aren’t we supposed to be fighting injustice? Why should we lock them out of the struggle for justice? Or perhaps the population isn’t targeted in the ‘right way’.

I’ll extend an olive branch, here.

As noted, the history of Canada and its Indigenous people has been called a cultural genocide, exercising intent to assimilate, at times forcibly, Indigenous peoples into Canadian society. But in the context of the MMIWG there is no such policy and no such targeting. The victims are tragic examples of vulnerable people falling through the cracks of our society, our institutions, our laws, and our moral considerations and such apathy may be due to racial, gender, and ethnic stereotypes.

Similar things, however, can be said about the Opioid victims: they’re victims of a system that is empowered by capitalist structures — abetted by governmental and societal indifference — that doesn’t give them the moral consideration they deserve because of their class and cultural status. It is a slow American genocide spanning generations, and the failure of the system to question what was going on, and the media to cover it appropriately led to even more deaths.

People may deny this and state that the victims and their communities aren’t targeted: they’re victims of improper prescriptions, unstable communities, poor family lives, and/or substance abuse. It’s a matter for internal housekeeping, not society. Such a response, though, could open one up to Kafka-esque accusation: the fact that you deny that a genocide is going on here shows that you are complicit within it.

Now, this isn’t to pick fights between tragedies. Both the MMIWG and the Opioid Crisis are tragedies in their own right, but the MMIWG doesn’t pass the Goldilocks Problem, because the logic that makes it a genocide would also apply to the Opioid Crisis – which clearly isn’t a genocide, even though the number of deaths in the crisis are 40 times greater than that of the MMIWG. The intent just isn’t there, and this is borne out by the fact that reasonable alternative explanations can be given for the deaths.

Overall, the MMIWG Final Report’s attempt to broaden the conceptual and legal parameters of genocide beyond its internationally recognised limits is unjustified and it does not stand up to scrutiny and would never hold up as a legal argument in any international institution.

There is some sage advice given by the United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect, which states in the very first paragraph of its Guidance Note:

The question is sometimes asked whether specific events, past of present, can referred to as “genocide”. It is important to adhere to the correct usage of the terms for several reasons; (i) the term is frequently misused in reference to large scale, grave crimes committed against particular populations; (ii) the emotive nature of the term and political sensitivity surrounding its use; and (iii) the potential legal implications associated with a determination of genocide.

The authors of the Final Report would have been wise to follow such advice.

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