To mark this past Canada Day, the Canadian Historical Association, which represents the interests of 650 professional historians, issued a statement whose purpose was to justify the application of the word “genocide” to the history of Indigenous oppression in this country, with special emphasis on the Indian Residential School system.
The CHA council’s statement cites the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, ratified by 152 states including Canada, which defines genocide as any or all of five acts directed at a particular group: killing members; causing serious bodily or mental harm; deliberately inflicting conditions calculated to bring about the group’s destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births; or forcibly transferring the group’s children to another group. The authors say Canada’s “genocidal policies” and “genocidal systems” continue to this day and may therefore be considered an ongoing genocide (a view endorsed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau).
The council’s assertion that its viewpoint had the “broad consensus” of its membership triggered pushback. Christopher Dummitt, Associate Professor in Trent University’s School for the Study of Canada, vigorously disagreed with the content of the Canada Day statement, and he knew other Canadian historians did, too. Under his leadership, a number of his colleagues joined in writing an open letter to “express our grave disappointment” with the CHA statement. They characterized it as a “coercive tactic,” accusing CHA directors of not only “fundamentally [breaking] the norms and expectations of professional scholarship,” but, by insisting on a sole interpretation, “insulting and dismissing those who have arrived at a different assessment.”
The letter demands the CHA retract its statement and “honour its best traditions” by “upholding the values of viewpoint diversity and open scholarly debate.” The open letter will be published shortly in the Literary Review of Canada and in Le Journal de Montréal. Dummitt has expanded on its themes in a Quillette article, published Aug 11. In an email to me, Dummitt expressed concern at “how much intellectual bullying is taking place by activists and activist historians right now.” The statement, he said, is “a brazenly unscholarly tactic aimed at silencing people and presenting anyone who questions the activists’ rhetoric as racist or backward.”
The letter is signed by 50 historians, a significant number, especially considering the many others who let it be known privately they were abstaining because of tenure concerns. Signatories include the multiple-award winning Margaret Macmillan (University of Oxford), J.L. Granatstein (York University) Patrice Dutil (Ryerson University) and Robert Bothwell (University of Toronto, retired). Notable amongst these distinguished scholars is the name of Jim Miller (Professor Emeritus of History, University of Saskatchewan), a former president of the CHA, whose formidable credentials in this scholarly domain demand — minimally — respect. His most recent publication (2017) is Residential Schools and Reconciliation: Canada Confronts Its History.