The Times Colonist recently reported that the Royal B.C. Museum would no longer collect Indigenous remains. One researcher had found that in the mid-1850s, the fashion in Victoria’s households was to display an Indigenous person’s skull on the mantelpiece.
Such was the cachet of these remains that skulls were shipped all over the world to decorate other mantelpieces. White settlers took them from what they said were rock piles. In fact, they were burial sites.
Fast forward to this past week, when the term “genocide” appeared repeatedly in the report on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, causing a major uproar.
In newspapers, online, on the radio and TV — and in kitchens and coffee shops — the focus was on how “genocide” could be used to describe the situation.
The more than 230 recommendations, or calls for justice, took a back seat, if mentioned at all.
As a journalist and student of how gender informs news, I have watched over the years as mainstream media outlets, which are still white-male-dominated, downplay, ignore and increasingly champion the causes of gender and ethnic inequality.
Historically, in the name of maintaining “traditional” social norms, news media have reflected patriarchal values held by readers, listeners and viewers.
You need look no further than the name of this newspaper — Times Colonist — to see how “tradition” lives on without anyone giving serious thought to what the term might signify to colonized people and others increasingly concerned about gross inequalities that are rooted in our colonial past.
With news media being one of the main ways society learns, it may be no surprise that so many Canadians are outraged by the term “genocide” being used in this seemingly inappropriate way.
Some letters to the editor opine that the term is devalued or diluted in the context of the missing and murdered women and girls. It is not “real genocide,” as one letter-writer to the Times Colonist put it.
Until a few years ago, while researching a magazine article about a B.C.-based genocide scholar named Adam Jones, I thought the same as most people. A genocide was about vast numbers of people being killed en masse in a concentrated way.
But, I was wrong. Genocide, as the murdered women and girls report explains, has many defining aspects.
It notes the UN definition, which Canada signed, as acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” including killing members of the group; harming them mentally or physically; causing “conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part”; forcibly transferring children of the group to another group; and more.
As I learned about the complexities — even subtleties — of genocide, I was moved to write at the time: “Genocide is not an occasional, enormous barbaric eruption, but a simmering continuum, a possibility in all society, in all hearts, able to be brought to a boil through institutions and social structures that permit such atrocities.”
Consider the words of Bernie Farber, a former CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress.
He might be expected to want to limit the definition of genocide to atrocities such as the Holocaust.
But he does not
Farber says that those who oppose the term for the MMIWG report may not have a full understanding of its meaning, which would include the long history of sexist and racist injustice that has cost so many Indigenous girls and women their lives.
According to the report, examples include: “deaths of women in police custody; the failure to protect Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA (two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex and asexual) people from exploitation and trafficking, as well as from known killers; the crisis of child welfare; physical, sexual, and mental abuse inflicted on Indigenous women and girls in state institutions; the denial of Status and membership for First Nations; the removal of children; forced relocation and its impacts; purposeful, chronic underfunding of essential human services; coerced sterilizations; and more.”
We now abhor the notion of treating an Indigenous person’s skull as chic decor.
This new report asks us to name the historic truth of why such acts were ever considered to be perfectly acceptable.
Should there be international legal ramifications if Canada acknowledges a genocide here, as the Prime Minister has done, so be it.
Vivian Smith is a Victoria journalist, author and media consultant.