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Debating genocide in Canada: a response to Steven High

Debating genocide in Canada

On 1 July 2021 the Canadian Historical Association released a “Canada Day Statement” which claimed that there was a consensus amongst Canadian professional historians that Canada had engaged in genocide against its Indigenous peoples, and arguably was still doing so

This statement, which made a bold truth-claim, included several factually questionable elements. A group of over fifty historians published an open letter calling on the organization to retract its statement and warning of the dangers for academic freedom when academic associations declare that contentious historical issues are settled and thus beyond questioning or debate. In response to the letter, CHA president Steven High published an attack on the open letter and its signatories. Below, two of the signatories respond.

We write as two of the signatories to the open letter protesting the Canadian Historical Association’s Canada Day statement. The open letter has received a fair amount of commentary since it was first published online on Christopher Dummitt’s website and in print in the Literary Review of Canada. While we can’t respond to all commentators we did want to specifically address the official response from Canadian Historical Association president Steven High.

Reading Professor High’s response brought to mind a section from E.H. Carr’s classic What is History? where Carr extended on Housman’s line that “accuracy is a duty, not a virtue”. As Carr put it, “to praise a historian for his accuracy is like praising an architect for using well-seasoned timber or properly mixed concrete in his building. It is a necessary condition of his work, but not his essential function.”[1]

The ability – and even more, the willingness – to accurate summarize someone else’s ideas is the very essence of good scholarly conduct. No scholarly debate is possible without it. This is why we feel obligated to respond to Professor High. Differing interpretations of history and politics are possible and to be encouraged. Indeed, that is precisely why we wrote the open letter in the first place – because the CHA’s statement threatened viewpoint diversity (a concept that some will dismiss as a right-wing code word to legitimize misogyny and white supremacy, but which we embrace in its emphasis on diversity and the belief that weighing several perspectives is beneficial – particularly when arriving at historical assessments). But intelligent disagreement requires that you accurately understand and represent the views of the person with whom you are interacting. That is what ought to distinguish scholarly debate from partisan polemics.

Instead, Professor High begins his piece by attempting to discredit the letter writers and the letter itself. He describes us as “a group of white, mainly retired historians with only a few subject specialists among them”. This is a classic ad hominem attack – attempting to discredit the person instead of engaging with their ideas. It is no more legitimate than if High were to suggest we ought not to listen to another group of scholars because they were largely female or young. Aside from being offensive, ad hominem attacks like High’s are a classic distraction technique.

High goes on to claim that our letter “was originally published in a fringe publication that regularly mocks Indigenous residential school survivors.” He is referring here to the fact that the letter was published in the Dorchester Review. The editor of that publication has already responded to these allegations, calling them libelous and untrue. But more to the point, High is incorrect and ought to have known this. The letter was published in the Dorchester Review but only after it was published elsewhere. It is an open letter, after all, and those who signed it (including the editor of the Dorchester Review) wanted it to be posted widely and are free to do so. The open letter was first published online on Christopher Dummitt’s website on 9 August 2021, and it was only posted after it was already in print in the Literary Review of Canada and was expected out later that week in the Journal de Montréal. These facts were readily available in the online version on Dummitt’s website that was linked to in the National Post.

High goes on to lament that the National Post refused to publish his own response and failed to cover another letter written by several Indigenous historians. On this point, we agree. We would have been happy to have had the Post publish his response (after a fact check) and to provide coverage to other responses. Much of the point of our open letter was to call for open debate. We would point out that we also were turned down by various other national publications that we approached to publish our letter. High is hardly alone in not having ready access to national media outlets. More importantly it is High himself and the CHA who are attempting by their statement to shut down debate (more on this below), so it is more than a little ironic that he complains here about divergent viewpoints not being disseminated by the national news media.

According to High, the “overwhelming response” to the original Canada Day statement amongst historians has been positive. He argues that it can be difficult to acknowledge genocide in one’s own country but that it is “essential” that Canadians do so. After all, “a historian’s job is not about comforting the comfortable.” We cannot know what the response of Canada’s historians has been in total without any statistics being provided, although we acknowledge and accept that a majority of active CHA members could very well be pleased with the Association’s stance. We have also received many positive emails thanking us for taking our stance (as well as some critical, which we also acknowledge and respect). Many of the most meaningful emails and calls that we have received have come from graduate students, recent postgraduates, and untenured junior professors who feel threatened to voice their disagreement with what they perceive to be a disturbing tendency in our profession to stifle debate and enforce consensus on contested topics. To these scholars (who are neither retired nor old), the open letter served as a hopeful sign that open discussion might be possible.

Professor High’s letter states that the open letter’s critique of the CHA’s statement “leans heavily on a distinction between ‘cultural genocide’ and ‘genocide’”. According to High, this distinction “does not exist in international law.” For High “cultural genocide is genocide” and as proof he directs our attention to an article written about the residential school experience (an odd choice in that he is making a legal argument but does not refer to any legal scholarship on the issue).  In fact, there is no “consensus” in the expert legal scholarship to support High’s categorical assertion – and his decision to pretend as if there is no debate amongst lawyers mirrors the same problem that we have with his claim of “consensus” amongst historians on the Canadian case. It would be fairer to say that some scholars and activists (presumably High amongst them) would like there to be no distinction. But in claiming the distinction does not exist, he is treating an argument that he is making as though it is an irrefutable fact.

The United Nations lays out two main elements to the crime of genocide. First is a “mental element” that has to do with “intent.” There is a clear consensus amongst scholars that the history of Crown-Indigenous relations in Canada has been marked by colonial violence, assimilation programs, and dispossession in myriad forms – themes that run through our teaching and scholarship, as they do with the vast majority of our colleagues. Whether these historical state practices are tantamount to a legal intent to “destroy a group,” whether biologically or culturally (e.g. through the forced transfer of children), according to the legal definition of genocide, is certainly worthy of ongoing debate. Recent international jurisprudence that “implicitly rejects cultural genocide from the scope of the [Genocide Convention],”[2] alongside a growing chorus of legal activists seeking to redefine international law to include cultural genocide (something that they have yet to achieve, despite High’s exhortations to the contrary),[3] makes this a timely and relevant subject.

The open letter that we signed actually does not discuss this issue at all (even though High claims that it does). Indeed, because the main point of the letter was to fight for academic freedom and viewpoint diversity, we wanted those who actually believe that genocide is an appropriate term to characterize Canadian state practice towards Indigenous people to still feel that they could sign it (as some did). Indeed, as authors of this response, we do not see eye-to-eye with one another on several critical aspects of the issue, but enjoy the exchange of ideas and evidence.

The main issue that we were addressing in the open letter relates to academic freedom. To be charitable, perhaps High was referring to another piece published in the National Post that did discuss the cultural vs physical genocide distinction. But conflating the open letter with other perspectives in circulation is poor practice.

High claims that our open letter “juxtaposes ‘activist’ (and somehow compromised) historians and ‘objective’ (and therefore true) historians,” claiming that this dichotomy is “dishonest” and reflects an older “stale” debate. The problem is that we do not make this distinction – these are High’s words, not ours. High puts the word “objective” in quotation marks, but that term does not appear in the open letter.

We (and we are not speaking for the other signatories of the open letter) would acknowledge a distinction between activists and scholars – and we are well aware of the extensive philosophical debates on these issues. We might define activists as people who are so committed to a particular social or political belief system that evidence must be mobilized only in instrumental support of a predetermined cause, to pursue that which is already believed (known). Activists are primarily driven by what they already know (or think that they know) – not by curiosity, an openness to counter-arguments, or a desire to hear alternate or dissenting viewpoints. Of course, scholars can be activists – and many of us are in aspects of our lives and our work. But we see a distinction from scholarly practice that, while recognizing confirmation bias and the limits on our ability to individually be objective, is still committed to seeking historical truths based upon principles of argument rooted in verifiable/falsifiable evidence, proportionality, and context.  We are reminded of Dominick LaCapra who, while critical of “objectivist historians,” promoted a sophisticated encounter between the historian and their evidence. As Peter Novick summarized, LaCapra was suspicious of attempts to find (or invent) unified versions of the past marked by “closure,” instead defining “the point of inquiry as not ending an argument but making it ‘as informed, vital, and undogmatically open to counterargument as possible.” In short, a “good” interpretation “should not seek closure but rather an opening to new avenues of criticism and self-reflection.”[4]

This is what makes the CHA’s statement – as a professional body – so dangerous. It is one thing for an individual scholar to argue for a particular interpretation of the past. But when the main national body of historians asserts that the debate on an issue is over, falsely claiming that there is now a consensus, and does this because they are committed to a particular moral and political objective (as High and the CHA openly admit), they are acting not as scholars seeking open argument, inquiry, and discussion but as activists asserting “closure” on a debate and proclaiming that they have arrived at the truth. And make no mistake about it: the CHA Executive is making truth claims in its Canada Day letter.

The CHA president suggests that historians “do not stand apart from politics,” claiming that “the most political statement in the world is one that insists it is not political.” He cites the original Canada Day statement to argue that historians have contributed to the “refusal” to acknowledge dispossession (something we struggle to understand given the historiography over the last twenty-five years) and he argues that the National Post coverage “confirms this.”

We agree that historians do not stand apart from politics. But that does not mean we must eschew the “noble dream” of verifiable/falsifiable evidence-based argumentation and debate and simply embrace activism as the basis for scholarly endeavour. High is presenting a simplistic dichotomy that seems to make us want to overlook options in between – a typical tactic of those who want to polarize society to serve a political agenda. Surely he would agree that polemicists and partisans who preach propagandistic versions of the past are wrong – and they are wrong precisely because they are more interested in their own political objectives than they are committed to telling the truth. Is there no difference between activists who stick to their beliefs even when confronted with new evidence contradicting them, and scholars committed to seeking the truth? Humans are subject to confirmation bias; we have prejudices (or even, more benignly, cultural locations) that will inevitably influence the kinds of questions we ask, the histories we want to write, and our ideas about what matters. But as a profession we need to be committed collectively to discovering the truth. This is a collective enterprise. If we aren’t, we will confront situations where the truth conflicts with our desired social or political outcome and we will be uninterested in changing our view. We will aim to hide inconvenient truths. We can even trick ourselves into believing that we aren’t deceiving ourselves. What’s more, we will be willing, as in this case, to put high social and professional costs on those who dare to disagree as a way of preventing those who we frame as “opponents” from even speaking in the first place.

Professor High ends his piece by invoking the words of several Indigenous historians who claimed that this is not just an ivory tower debate but one that has real world implications. For these scholars and for High, to even openly disagree about the use of the word genocide is dangerous and harmful. They claim that these issues shouldn’t even be discussed openly at a time when “Indigenous communities across the country are raw and grieving” and that to do so is “blind, callous and unethical”.

We do not doubt the sincerity of this belief. But as Payam Akhavan, a McGill University law professor and former Legal Advisor to the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia at The Hague, asked in a 2016 McGill Law Journal article, is cultural genocide best understood as a “legal label or mourning metaphor?”[5] We invite these kinds of questions and invitations to critical self-reflection as scholars. To suggest that a topic is off limits because disagreement might be considered harmful or offensive is one of the most pressing threats to academic freedom today. This is exactly why we wrote the open letter – to counter the illiberal and dangerous effects that this idea is having in academia today.[6]

To see the problem, it is only necessary to take this idea to its logical conclusion. When could this argument not be made? When would it be safe to talk about divisive and sensitive issues? And who gets to decide? This kind of thinking could put any difficult subject off the table whenever some group claims to be offended. They could even actually be offended. The effect is still to stifle academic freedom and to limit viewpoint diversity.

It has happened before. In 1939, University of Toronto historian Frank Underhill almost lost his job by questioning the British Empire in a Canada that was heading into war on Britain’s side. In a Canada literally at war, some self-declared loyalists said that his critical perspective was not “safe.” Throughout the Cold War, numerous scholars were labelled as potential subversives because they challenged the moral consensus of capitalist democracies. To their illiberal opponents it made sense – after all, at that moment, in the midst of worldwide ideological-political conflict, it was the wrong time to disagree. Yet again, after 9/11, we faced claims that it was too unsafe to criticize the war on terror or overreaches in national security legislation. Now was not the time, the forces of illiberalism declared, for disagreement.

The desire to shut down academic freedom frequently comes from those who claim that this is not the right time or that disagreement is insensitive or offensive. A careful perusal of the signatories to our open letter would show the name of Michiel Horn, one of the foremost authorities on the history of academic freedom in Canada.

Indeed, this issue is central to the open letter. The main reason we wrote it was to respond to what seems to us to be an illiberal tendency for academic organizations to take political stances in ways that threaten academic freedom. It is one thing for an individual academic to make statements about the nature of Canadian society that ought, by rights, to be open to academic study. We back up an individual’s academic freedom to do so – and we would do so unreservedly. But academic organizations should not dictate what political positions members should take because this threatens academic freedom.

How can a young scholar feel free to engage in research in politically fraught political issues – and remain committed to discovering the truth, regardless of its political acceptability – when organizations and institutions are asserting that there is a single truth and a single correct way of interpreting the past? The answer is simple: they cannot. The CHA is creating a climate of fear and censoriousness, making it dangerous for anyone who does not agree to speak up.

For all of the inaccuracies and distortions that we have noted in High’s response to us, one last point is the most striking. Even though this issue of academic freedom and viewpoint diversity was the main issue addressed – indeed the main reason for the letter – Professor High does not mention it at all.

Instead, we were greeted with inaccurate and sometimes blatantly false mischaracterizations. We were attacked for who we are – our sex and age and race. And we were told that this is not the appropriate time to have open discussion.

Even though the letter explicitly avows a desire to look at and examine the darkest parts of Canadian history – we explicitly encourage all Canadian to read the Truth and Reconciliation Report – and even though we are committed to examining the historic and ongoing legacies of residential schools and other forms of colonial violence, High and other critics wrongly suggest we are being callous and cruel for daring to disagree with their stance. This strikes us as a deliberate mischaracterization and an attempt to change the subject.

In his 2016 article, Akhavan cautions that “there is a danger that in focusing inordinately on the cultural genocide debate, we may become lost in abstractions, in a rationalistic culture that cannot fathom the depth of human suffering that confuses politically correct platitudes and superficial sentimentality with genuine empathy and meaningful engagement.” He concludes that “cultural genocide is above all a song of bereavement, a metaphor for mourning, rebuilding a shattered self-conception through the power of words. It is for us to hear those words, heal those wounds, and to reclaim our shared humanity.” We share his concern, and at the same time appreciate his nuanced attempt to interrogate the legal and cultural meanings at play. By invoking this legal concept to characterize a metanarrative about colonial violence and dispossession, historians are anticipating legal remedies akin to those imposed on genocidal regimes elsewhere in the world. Whether this is the best way to get Canadians to hear the “song of bereavement” and acknowledge our histories of colonial violence and the need for reconciliation remains very much open to debate – and we must ensure that we retain the academic freedom to do so.

An alternative to High’s approach was – and is still – possible. We hold that the proper response to our balanced and compassionate calls for the right to ongoing discussion and debate would be a renewed commitment on the part of the Canadian Historical Association to academic freedom and accuracy. Just as we have attempted to do here in our own response, we can accurately and carefully summarize the work of others, pointing to issues of genuine disagreement or error. We are not outside politics, nor can we ever claim to get to the “whole” truth. But we are committed to respect diverse perspectives and ethical scholarly conduct. In an open and free liberal society we leave it to readers – and citizens – to judge for themselves where the truth lies.

Christopher Dummitt is Professor of Canadian History at Trent University, Canada, and Whitney Lackenbauer is Canada Research Chair in the Study of the Canadian North, also at Trent University.

On this subject, see also Liam Kennedy, ‘The White Man’s Burden Reinvented’

[1] E.H. Carr, What is History? (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964), 11.

[2] Payam Akhavan, “Cultural genocide: Legal label or mourning metaphor?” McGill Law Journal/Revue de droit de McGill 62, no. 1 (2016): 243-270.

[3] See, for example, W. A. Schabas, “Genocide law in a time of transition: recent developments in the law of genocide,” Rutgers law review61:1 (2008): 161–192.

[4] LaCapra quoted in Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The ‘Objectivity Question’ and the American historical profession (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 604-5.

[5] Akhavan, “Cultural genocide: Legal label or mourning metaphor?”

[6] See, for example, a recent study of threats to academic freedom citing how some scholars’ commitment to ideas of safety and harm are the main reason why they are willing to impose personal and professional sanctions on those who take what they perceive to be the wrong side on fraught political issues. https://cspicenter.org/reports/academicfreedom/.

About the author

Christopher Dummitt

Christopher Dummitt

About the author

P. Whitney Lackenbauer

P. Whitney Lackenbauer