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Genocide, Ethnocide, Or Hyperbole? Australia's "Stolen Generation" and Canada's "Hidden Holocaust"

A decade awash in genocide and deadly conflict has passed since Jason Clay lamented that "it is impossible for concerned activists and scholars to agree on which cases constitute genocides, much less how interested people would go about documenting them." (Clay, 1988) While this statement holds true today, a vast array of relevant scholarship on genocide has nonetheless arisen, informed by events in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, East Timor, and far too many other "exotic and deadly" locales. The UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (UNGC), once thought to be a languishing example of empty political rhetoric, has found purchase in fresh criminal trials. The learning curve when it comes to genocide, however, is conspicuously uneven. The challenge lies not in cultivating and maintaining an awareness of the phenomenon -- a task the mass media has demonstrated itself more than capable of handling -- but in recognizing its universal implications.

Human rights pundit Michael Ignatieff wrote recently (2001) that genocide is the result of a utopian vision of a "world without enemies," a lethal brand of universalism that challenges conventional views of barbarism. The growth of reparations politics in particular is making short work of the idea that genocide is the exclusive condition of the savage -- read "uncivilized" -- heart. At the ideological core of reparations movements lies a memorialized sense of past oppression. That identity derives much of its nourishment from a particular image of the Holocaust and its continuing relevance as a decontextualized lesson in extreme suffering and absolute evil. According to scholar John Torpey (2001), the Holocaust remains the "central metaphor for all politics concerned with `making whole what has been smashed.'"

Samantha Power, executive director of Harvard University's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, has described (1999) the tendency among journalists, advocates, and policy makers to "Holocaustize" a wide range of issues in order to gamer support for them and stir sympathy. Indigenous groups and activists have discovered the polemic advantage of packaging their grievances in terms of genocide, the Holocaust in particular. But genocide and its cultural variant, ethnocide, must be understood as universal phenomena to encourage the way forward through openness and reconciliation. Current governments must therefore be given the breathing room to acknowledge the misdeeds of their former colonial incarnations. Maximizing perpetrator guilt and enhancing the martyr complexes of victim groups will be an impediment to these processes.

As indigenous peoples increasingly assert by resort to international legal mechanisms claims of past and ongoing mistreatment at the hands of colonial authorities and their inheritors, some governments are being forced to acknowledge the uncomfortable truth that genocide has not been isolated to specific ruptures such as the Holocaust and Rwanda, or to "culturally relative" bloodletting. Two cases draw our attention to the dilemma: Australia's "stolen generation" of forcibly removed children of mixed Aboriginal and white descent, and the systemic abuses of aboriginal children in Canada's residential schools. An Australian government investigation into the former characterized the forcible removals as genocide, a charge greeted with considerable derision and acrimony. Meanwhile, reports dealing with Native experiences in Canada's residential schools have produced similarly sensationalist claims. As Australia and Canada slowly come to grips with the grim reality of the impact of European arrival on indigenous populations, the notion of Convention-mandated intervention is being turned on its head.

The "Stolen Generation"

On August 2, 1995 Australian Attorney General Michael Lavarch ordered Australia's Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) to conduct an investigation into the forcible separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families and communities. Headed by former High Court Judge Sir Ronald Wilson, the inquiry released its report, entitled Bringing Them Home, in April 1997. It has been surrounded by controversy ever since. Its most spectacular conclusion: the forcible removal of indigenous children from their homes constituted genocide. According to the report, forcible removals occurred throughout the county, varying in scale "according to the period, the available resources and the visibility of...children of `mixed descent'." Although the report could not pinpoint exact numbers of affected children, it did state that from 1910 to 1970, "between one in three and one in ten indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and communities," and that in some instances "the figure was undoubtedly much greater than one in ten."(1)

Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Herron responded to the report with a protest: "You can't judge past practices by today's standards...we do not believe that our generation should be asked to accept responsibility for the acts of earlier generations, sanctioned by the law of the times." (Peake, 1997) The issue was further sidelined by growing doubts over the report's methodology and objectivity, a debate punctuated by semantic and statistical squabbling. Two court cases have failed to compensate victims, and Wilson has been severely lambasted in the media. The case was not helped by specious comparisons to the Holocaust made by Aden Ridgeway, an Aboriginal politician, and the late Charles Perkins, then of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission.

Sir Ronald Wilson regrets using the term genocide at all, but for pragmatic reasons rather than legal ones. When he and his report committee were discussing how to frame their conclusions, they were aware of the potential backlash against a charge of genocide, but settled on the term anyway in order to call attention to the case. The distracting public debate that followed the report's release meant that real issues were lost in the mêlée. According to Wilson, using the word genocide "gave the government an out because the first thing they could do was to reject the report on its finding of `genocide'," and "come out fighting." The rejection was a knee-jerk emotional denial of the charge of genocide, not based on any reasoned legal consideration of the UNGC or the facts of the case. "If there hadn't been that finding," Wilson laments, "then what would they have had to complain about, to criticize?"(Carlyon, 2001)

The "Canadian Holocaust"

Australian policies toward Aboriginal peoples originated in eugenicist assumptions justifying the forcible removal of individuals of mixed descent and resulted first in physical assaults on Aboriginal communities and documented cases of genocide, and later in plans of assimilation. Canada's policies toward its Native populations represent a long history of attempted assimilation for which it has in recent years issued apologies and engaged in a process of self-examination and policy review.

The five-volume Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, People to People, Nation to Nation, was released in 1996. After holding 178 days of public hearings, visiting 96 communities, and conducting its own research and consultations, the Commission came to the conclusion that the main policy direction of the past -- assimilating aboriginal peoples into the mainstream of Canadian society -- was simply wrong and destructive, both to indigenous life and culture and to the country as a whole. The residential school system -- with an estimated total, for the entire period in which the schools were in operation, of 100,000 children in attendance -- was a particularly egregious facet of those policies. The Commission documented a record of sexual and physical abuses at the schools. A "healing package" of $350 million was set aside by the Canadian government in 1998 as part of a plan, entitled "Gathering Strength: Canada's Aboriginal Action Plan," for a renewed relationship between indigenous nations and Canadian society.

In this environment of official transparency and open debate,(2) sensational charges of genocide continue to emerge. Hidden From History: The Canadian Holocaust (Annett, 1998), for example, structures its arguments according to the components of the UNGC. It resorts to Holocaust analogies, as well as unsubstantiated links between Canadian indigenous policies and Nazi plans and personnel. Hidden From History alleges that the systemic abuses in some residential schools amounted to a genocide that claimed the lives of 50,000 Native children, and recommends that authorities outside of Canada take up the case in the World Court. Another work, The Circle Game: Shadows and Substance in the Indian Residential School Experience in Canada (Chrisjohn & Young, 1994), makes no pretense at objectivity. Its authors offer the bald statement that "assimilation is genocide," declaring: "even the phrase `cultural genocide' is an unnecessary ellipsis: cultural genocide is any intellectually honest appraisal, Indian residential schools were genocide." Both works document the horrific abuses of aboriginal children that took place within residential schools, but the manner in which they accomplish their task invites criticism and dismissal at the expense of their core concerns.(3)


Conceptions of genocide occupy a broad range of meaning, from minimalist definitions that are legally and practically oriented, to more expansive and unconventional maximalist claims of suffering and atrocity. (Stoett, 1999) The minimalist definition of genocide is contained in the UNGC, adopted in 1948. At the other end of the spectrum, maximalist usage of the term has been made in reference to a wide range of political and emotional topics. Somewhere between the two polarities rests a body of scholarship devoted to understanding the mass killing of populations. Definitions and models vary: some are particular to a specific case, such as the genocide of the Armenians in 1915, the Holocaust, or Rwanda, while others entail more generic criteria like the central role of the state in committing genocide (Horowitz, 1997) or the need for a sizeable victim pool. (Charny, 1994)

The distinction between functionalist and intentionalist approaches to genocide (to borrow from the terminology of Holocaust historiography) further complicates understanding. The former approach focuses on genocide as an inevitably radicalized process emerging from the impersonal structures or functions in a given society. The latter is explicitly predicated on the mens rea, or criminal intent, of the perpetrator. Both The Circle Game and Hidden From History adopt a largely functionalist approach, offering only a confused and limited consideration of specific intent to make a blanket condemnation of Euro-Canadian society as a whole. Although exploring the relations of domination in this manner may shed a certain degree of light on the subject, it is nonetheless problematic. Determining intent, especially during times of war or under conditions of colonial administration, is certainly a challenge. Its significance rests on a nascent culture of accountability for past abuses that is focused on making the perpetrators at all levels of authority responsible for their actions. But an exclusive focus on the impersonal societal forces and structures that contribute to the commission of genocide suggests that either everyone or no one in particular is responsible. (Fein, 1993)

Although the academic debate over what exactly constitutes genocide has generated little common ground, the distinction between genocide and ethnocide is one area in which scholars tend to agree. The consensus is predicated on the notion that ethnocide involves the destruction of a group's culture without actually (or necessarily) killing the bearers of that culture. (Chalk & Jonassohn, 1990; Charny, 1994; Fein, 1993) Yet a minimalist-maximalist point of contention persists in the notion that ethnocide can also be the unintentional or unforeseen byproduct of official policies and actions, whether or not a manifest intent to destroy exists. Like genocide, and for many of the same reasons, ethnocide must involve intent; genocide involves the deliberate physical destruction of a group while ethnocide -- often called forced assimilation or cultural genocide -- refers to the deliberate suppression or elimination of a culture (see also Maybury-Lewis, 1997). Ethnocide is thus conceptually distinct from other forms of cultural degradation.

As Alison Palmer has observed, determining the intent behind forcible removals is a crucial step toward establishing a prosecutable crime. It would "set a precedent for other forms of ethnocide to become embodied in international law as criminal activities." In turn, "the consolidation of a solid body of documentation which clearly demonstrates the intentional destruction of distinct cultural groups will add weight" to the demand for an ethnocide convention. (Palmer, 1992) Other scholars have acknowledged the potential difficulties in establishing a separate convention on ethnocide (Schabas, 2000; Morsink, 1999), but the recent work of the UN's Working Group on Indigenous Rights (Maybury-Lewis, 1997), has laid the foundation for the future.


Sensationalized claims of genocide can occlude constructive debate and meaningful reconciliation. The degree of legitimacy that has accrued to the UNGC in the wake of criminal tribunals for the Balkans and Rwanda is still fresh, and latching on to it to buttress polemics could potentially muddy the waters. Samantha Power has suggested (1999) that Holocaustizing issues can set an unreasonably high standard of comparison. Reports that do either of these -- especially when the cases involved bear no resemblance at all to genocide or the Holocaust -- are a disservice to indigenous causes in the long run because they are so readily dismissed as hysterics and cast a shadow of doubt over otherwise credible cases.

Polemics and propaganda are among the traditional methods used by perpetrators of genocide to marginalize and dehumanize targeted populations. Those seeking to expose such behaviour have a special responsibility to research and document their analyses as clearly and objectively as possible. Misguided reasoning like Wilson's, and works of propaganda like Hidden From History and The Circle Game only add fuel to the fires of denial. At the very least, the residential school system in Canada and Australia's "stolen generation" deserve much more rigorous and in-depth comparative analysis.

Political leaders the world over are already wont to engage in rhetorical end-runs around the meaning of the UNGC. The Convention is a legal mechanism meant to deal with the intentional physical destruction of groups; its offer-even if only as an afterthought (Schabas, 2000)-of recourse for cases of ethnocide, is deeply problematic.(4) Yet it points to the overlap between ethnocide and genocide and reminds us that cases not clearly "genocidal" may not survive the court of political partisanship. Under such conditions, the notion that a separate convention is needed to deal specifically with ethnocide (Fein, 1993) deserves further research and consideration. Its sine qua non, of course, would involve giving the contentious issue of perpetrator intent its due.

References and further reading:

Carlyon, P. (2001, June 12), White Lies. The Bulletin, pp 26-32.

Chalk, F. & Jonassohn, K. (1990). The History and Sociology of Genocide: Analyses and Case Studies. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Charny, I. (1994). Toward a Generic Definition of Genocide. In Genocide: Conceptual and Historical Dimensions. Andreopoulos, G.J., Ed. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. pp. 64-94.

Clay, J. (1998). Anthropologists and Human Rights -- Activists by Default? In Human Rights and Anthropology. Cambridge, MA: Cultural Survival, Inc. pp. 115-120.

Fein, H. (1993). Genocide: A Sociological Perspective. London, Newbury Park, New Delhi: Sage Publications.

Horowitz, I.L. (1997). Taking Lives: Genocide and State Power. 4th ed. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.

Ignatieff, M. (2001, February 26). The Danger of a World Without Enemies: Lemkin's Word. The New Republic.

Maybury-Lewis, D. (1997). Indigenous Peoples, Ethnic Groups, and the State. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

McIntosh, I.S. & Maybury-Lewis, D. (2001, Spring). Cultural Survival on "cultural survival." Cultural Survival Quarterly 25:1, pp 4-5.

Morsink, J. (1999). Cultural Genocide, the Universal Declaration, and Minority Rights. Human Rights Quarterly 21:4, pp 1009-1060.

Palmer, A. (1992). Ethnocide. In Genocide in Our Time: An Annotated Bibliography With Analytical Introductions. Dobkowski, M.N. & Walliman, I., Eds. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Pierian Press. pp. 1-6.

Peake, R. (1997, Dec 17). We Will Not Apologize, Says Herron. Canberra Times. P. A(3).

Power, S. (1999, Spring). To Suffer By Comparison. Daedalus. 128:2, pp 31-66.

Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children From Their Families (1997, April). Bringing them Home. Sydney: Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. y/hreoc.

Report to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1994, October). The Circle Game: Shadows and Substance in the Indian Residential School Experience in Canada. Penticton, British Columbia: Theytus Books, Ltd. (1997). Chrisjohn, R.D. & Young, S. With contributions by Michael Maraun. Full text available at www.

Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1996). People to People, Nation to Nation. Canada: Indian and Northern Affairs Canada.

Schabas, W. (2000). Genocide in International Law: The Crime of Crimes, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Schabas, William (1999, January 7). Special Report: The Genocide Convention at Fifty. Washington, D.C.: United States Institute For Peace.

Stoett, P. (1999). Human and Global Security: An Exploration of Terms. Toronto, Buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press.

(1). See

(2). How constructive or sincere official actions and promises have actually been is a continuing source of friction.

(3). These two reports are not the first to allege government-perpetrated genocide of indigenous peoples in Canada. See Genocide in Canada (1997, January). Ginew, Manitoba: Roseau River Anishinabe First Nations Government; and Davis, R. & Zannis, M. (1973). The Genocide Machine in Canada: The Pacification of the North. Montreal: Black Rose Books.

(4). It is interesting to note that Canada's domestic genocide legislation included a truncated definition of the phenomenon, listing only two of the United Nations definition's original five acts (see Chalk & Jonassohn, 1990). Those two provisions limit genocide to strictly lethal acts. Excluded are Articles II(b), "Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group"; II(d), "Imposing measures intended to prevent births within a group"; and, notably, II(e), "Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group."

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