Genocide, Genocide-Denial, Nationalism, and the Canadian Historical Profession

On July 1st, 2021 the Canadian Historical Association (CHA) — which represents some 650 professional historians across the country — released a statement saying that Canada’s “long history of violence and dispossession” directed at indigenous peoples “fully warrants our use of the word genocide.”  It was an unusual step for an institution representing an academic discipline that has long shied away from using language that might be deemed “controversial,” particularly when the lens of analysis is directed, not at faraway places and eras, but rather at ourselves.

The CHA statement went on to define what it meant by genocide, by referring both to the conceptual origins of the term in the work of Rafael Lemkin, and to its incorporation into international law in the immediate post-WWII era — most notably in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, that was ratified by 149 member states of the United Nations including Canada.  Crucially, the statement emphasized the fact that genocide –– even in the watered-down sense of the term that was codified in international law –– was not confined to acts of physical killing.  Imposing measures designed to eliminate a group as a self-identifying nation or collective –– with or without physically killing them –– was still a form of genocide.  Policies designed to prevent births in a target group, and policies that involved the removal of children from a targeted group, both qualify as genocidal acts under the UN Convention that Canada signed, regardless of whether or not a physical murder was intended or carried out. 

In taking that definition seriously, the CHA statement went on to assert “that genocidal intent has been amply established in the historical scholarship and by the words of policy makers at the time.”  It further stated that “there is a broad consensus on this point among historical experts, further evidenced by the unanimous vote of our governing Council to make this Canada Day Statement.” And it concluded by remarking on the problematic role of the historian in a disciplinary sense in coming to grips with this reality: 

“… historians, in the past, have often been reticent to acknowledge this history as genocide. As a profession, historians have therefore contributed in lasting and tangible ways to the Canadian refusal to come to grips with this country’s history of colonization and dispossession. Our inability, as a society, to recognize this history for what it is, and the ways that it lives on into the present, has served to perpetuate the violence. It is time for us to break this historical cycle. We encourage Canadians to recognize this history for what it is: genocide.” 

For many people across the country, and particularly for First Nations from coast-to-coast paying close attention to the ongoing revelations about unmarked mass graves of children at residential schools, the CHA’s statement will seem fairly non-controversial, and indeed, a welcome, even if belated, intervention.

However, on August 9th, 2021, the Dorchester Review printed its own “open letter” in response to the CHA’s statement titled Historians Rally vs. “Genocide” Myth.  This letter expressed “grave disappointment” in the CHA’s statement, lamenting what it describes as the CHA’s partisan “activist turn” away from an ostensible “objectivity” that once reigned. The Dorchester Review letter asserts that there is no such scholarly consensus within the historical profession about genocide or genocidal intent in Canadian history, and protests against the accusation that Canadian historians “have turned a blind eye to the tragedies that have marked Canadian history.”

The Dorchester Review letter asserts that the CHA, in making its recent claims, has “fundamentally broken the norms and expectations of professional scholarship.”  Not only this, the open letter describes the CHA’s statement as itself a “coercive tactic” that threatens what it calls “open debate, viewpoint diversity, and a commitment to assessing the past based on primary evidence.”  The signatories conclude their own statement by “demand[ing] that the CHA retract its statement” in favour of “upholding the values of viewpoint diversity,” and implying that unnamed “multitudes” share their concerns but fear speaking out due to an alleged concern that they might jeopardize their own employment, tenure, or promotions within the historical profession.

It’s hard to know where to begin, given that the two statements don’t seem to be talking about the same thing.  Readers can judge for themselves.  Only the CHA statement bothered to define its terms.  The Dorchester Review letter simply asserts in its title that genocide is a “myth” in Canadian history — it does not bother to tell us what they mean by the term, nor does it attempt to explain why the CHA’s definition is inappropriate.  It simply sidesteps engaging in an argument and goes straight for a contrary conclusion. 

The Dorchester letter is also remarkably vague in its accusations.  It describes the CHA statement as “coercive” and implies that it has contributed to some kind of professional “chill” that has silenced those who don’t share its views, and now ostensibly fear institutional or professional reprisals.  But having read through the CHA statement multiple times now, it is hard to know what they consider “coercive” about it.  It was certainly self-critical from a disciplinary standpoint, and it certainly called upon historians “to recognize this history for what it is,” but taking a strong position, and calling upon others to do so as well, is hardly the same thing as “coercion.” 

Likewise, the Dorchester letter implies that the CHA has unnecessarily politicized a hitherto “objective” profession, and implies that it has abandoned a commitment to “evidence-based” scholarship.  It also implies that dissident and minority opinions are somehow, for the first time, under threat because of the organization’s statement.  There are no examples offered whatsoever for any of these allegations.  The Dorchester letter is a collection of vague insinuations and “straw person” fallacies.  The idea that the CHA statement somehow tosses evidence-based scholarship into the dustbin is preposterous.  Nobody has ever stated that “primary evidence” no longer matters.  Similarly, the notion that the CHA statement has somehow “politicized” an otherwise “objective,” value-free, dispassionate, or non-partisan discipline is also absurd.   

But given the list of names on the signatory list of the Dorchester open letter, and given the history and political framework of the Dorchester Review itself, it’s clear that this is a much older division — speaking to debates within the history profession that long predate the CHA’s recent statement on genocide and settler-colonialism in Canada.  The Dorchester Review, and its current editor (whose name is Christian Champion), have pretty much made a career out of bemoaning narrative challenges to traditional political and military history.  They proudly display the following review on their website: “The only high-level publication in Canada that examines our history and traditions without even a passing nod to academic fashions and identity politics.”  They also regularly post commentaries attacking criticisms of the residential school system in Canada — commentaries that do not just take issue with the use of a term like genocide, but take issue with a basic empirical condemnation of the impact of the residential school system itself, not to mention Canadian colonial history more generally.  For the last ten years, Dorchester Review has been publishing decidedly nationalist and settler-colonial voices, regardless of their disciplinary expertise or credentials –– including such luminaries as Conrad Black, Gil Troy, Barbara Kay, Jonathan Kay, J.L. Granatstein, Tom Flanagan, J.R. Miller, Ken Coates, and David Frum.  The contributors are not, for starters, exclusively historians.  The thread that binds them together is not professional, but rather their defence of a particular vision of what they call “our history” –– a technical term for a conservative, settler-nationalist paradigm that they deem to be under threat by “identity politics,” feminism, leftists, indigenous voices, and the like.        

But leaving aside the political leanings of the Dorchester Review itself, which I couldn’t care less about, the “open letter” was signed by many names under the heading of Historians Rally vs. “Genocide” Myth.  Calling many of these signatories “historians” is perhaps generous, even for those of us who aren’t overly-preoccupied with disciplinary boundaries. 

But in any case, who are these champions of “objectivity” and “evidence-based scholarship,” who fancy themselves to be dissident underdogs speaking for the fearful multitudes silenced by the CHA’s “coercion” and by implied institutional reprisals?  Some of these “dissidents” happen to be some of the most well-known and published figures in the country, many of them with regular columns or access to the media.  The posture of “dissidence” and the pretence about upholding “the norms and expectations of professional scholarship” and “viewpoint diversity” is pretty rich coming from some of these voices –– who have been pretty partisan in their own historical narratives, and have had literally decades of being a central part of a gate-keeping establishment within university departments and historical-professional institutions like the CHA.  

Even beyond the absurdity of presenting themselves as beleaguered dissidents against a new “coercive” orthodoxy within the CHA, one would be hard-pressed to find the vaunted values that this open letter professes to champion in the pages of the articles, books, and newspaper op-eds of many of these signatories.  They have been attacking narrative and historiographical challenges to traditional nationalist frameworks for, in some cases, decades –– from positions of institutional power that they now lament no longer having complete hegemony over.  

J.L. Granatstein is perhaps emblematic here.  He is the author of more than sixty books, and has been awarded at least six honorary degrees.  Granatstein was also an editor of the Canadian Historical Review in the 1980s, the most prestigious peer-reviewed historical journal in the country.  His short, popular polemic Who Killed Canadian History? became a best-seller after it was published by Harper Collins in 1998.  Granatstein has been worried about the same themes outlined in the Dorchester letter for a very long time.  Who Killed Canadian History? was itself an attack on what he perceived as a politicization of a profession that ought not to be political.  In the preface to the revised and expanded edition, Granatstein lamented that:

The history [now] taught is that of the grievers among us, the present-day crusaders against public policy or discrimination.  The history omitted is that of the Canadian nation and people. … Somewhere, somehow, we have completely lost our way. … Canada … must be one of the few political entities to overlook its own cultural traditions –– the European civilization on which our nation is founded. … What is important now is to ensure that the pressure to teach our history soundly and well is renewed. … We do have a history.  Canadians have an honourable past that merits study and that can unite us all, native-born and recent immigrants.  We have a country to build.” (Granatstein, p. xii-xvii)

Granatstein’s little polemic was an all-out assault on everything that was critical of traditional Canadian top-down political and military history, and anything that wasn’t sufficiently “nationalist” in his view.  Marxists, feminists, what he called “ethnic” history, “multiculturalism,” identity politics, anything that challenged the relatively benign view that Canadians have of themselves and their past, was to be derided and dismissed in Granatstein’s text.  As he wrote in a chapter called “Multicultural Mania,” Granatstein asserted that “Canadians in their five hundred years … have committed relatively few atrocities when compared with virtually any other society. … to pretend that Canada has been and remains a monstrous regime with blood-stained hands, to suggest that Canadian history is one of brutal expropriation, genocidal behaviour, and rampant racism, simply will not wash.” (p. 107).

In short, Granatstein’s problem is not that historians have somehow abandoned “evidence-based” scholarship, but rather that they have begun to draw different kinds of conclusions, and political and ethical implications from the evidence.  Granatstein has been lamenting the challenges to a prior Canadian nationalist historical orthodoxy for a very long time.  He has been a genocide-denier and indeed atrocity-denier for a very long time.  Granatstein’s problem –– consistently stated by him since the 90s up to this present-day letter of lament –– is not that history as a discipline has somehow become unnecessarily “politicized,” or abandoned its empiricism, but rather that his particular politics have fallen out of fashion, and are being challenged at an institutional level.  His problem is not that there is a false consensus being touted by an activist CHA, that ostensibly ignores “diversity” perspectives.  Granatstein’s entire career over the last quarter-century has been about mocking diversity, not defending it as the Dorchester letter professes to be doing.  His whole narrative in Who Killed Canadian History? is an appeal to a different type of false consensus called “our history,” a euphemism for settler-nationalist frameworks that he favoured.  In short, Granatstein’s real problem appears to be that this settler-nationalist paradigm that he has always worshipped is no longer the dominant, gate-keeping professional paradigm it once was.  

No doubt the motives of the signatories to the Dorchester letter are diverse.  I don’t want to generalize from Granatstein, nor from the editorial team at the Dorchester Review, and its own history of publishing highly politicized articles with a less-than-stellar relationship to “evidence,” to everyone else who signed on.  But some of the signatories have been engaged in atrocity-denial and genocide-denial and colonial white-washing vis-a-vis Canadian colonial history for a very long time.  The logic and structure of genocide-denial in Canada is similar to genocide-denial in other contexts.  This is not about making false equivalencies between different types of genocide.  It also goes way beyond quibbling over definitions –– because on some level the labels we give things are far less important than the substance of the concept or phenomenon we are talking about, and the empirical evidence we bring to bear on the topic as well.  

A denial, however, is often impervious to argument precisely because it is so often rooted in emotional and anti-intellectual agendas, such as colonialism and white supremacy itself.  Racism and fascism are not particularly interested in facts or empirical evidence or counter-arguments.  Denial can also be rooted in less malign motives.  There are plenty of other material and ideological allegiances that very often have an antagonistic relationship to evidence.  No doubt most of the signatories to this letter would protest at the very notion that they might not be the champions of empirical evidence and objectivity that their recent intervention proclaims.  Personally, I think many of them engage in valuable work, even if I don’t always share their assumptions, frameworks, or arguments.  Jim Miller’s work on treaties ought to be read by everyone in this country.  Don Smith’s book on Honoré Jaxon was wonderful.  I could list a number of books by signatories that are worth reading.  The point is not that these signatories are not doing good and insightful history on some level.  It is a shame, however, that they have signed on to a letter that implies everyone else has abandoned professional standards simply because they support the CHA’s recent statement on Canadian genocide.  It’s also audacious for some of these signatories to present themselves as beleaguered underdogs now that some of the disciplinary and yes, political hegemony they once presided over, has begun to crack because –– inevitably –– a new generation comes along.  Just because one’s colleagues no longer share your world view doesn’t mean they’ve abandoned empiricism and a mythical “objectivity” that never really existed outside the fantasies of the History profession.  Nationalism of the sort that Granatstein and others have touted has always had an inherently antagonistic relationship to evidence that undermines itself –– a fact that Orwell noted a long time ago when he perceptively remarked that “the nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.”  This is as true for Canadian history, as it is for anywhere else.

Parent, activist, researcher, amateur (and sometimes professional) historian, sci-fi/fantasy and nerd culture enthusiast, wilderness survival wannabe, former punk, red wine anarchist.

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