First Nations, Residential Schools, and the Americanization of the Holocaust: Rewriting Indigenous History in the United States and Canada”

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First Nations, Residential Schools, and the Americanization of the Holocaust: Rewriting Indigenous History in the United States and Canada”1

ABSTRACT: Many indigenous groups have invoked the Holocaust to reinterpret past events, a trend which reflects its Americanization and cosmopolitanization. Presenting European colonization as a “holocaust”, activist historians in America, Canada and other western settler societies have used the Final Solution to repackage colonial history in starkly black and white terms. I pay particular attention to the debates in America and Canada over the genocidal implications of indigenous residential schooling. There is a twin danger involved. At one level the Holocaust is subjected to a process of trivialization. At another level, framing history through the Holocaust decontextualizes group histories by re-reading past victimization through a distinctive and wholly different series of events.

In this article, I critique the widespread instrumentalization of the Holocaust in indigenous protest movements. Since the end of the Cold War, the moral lessons of the Holocaust have been subject to a process of “cosmopolitanization” and “Americanization” (Levy and Sznaider, 2004; Flanzbaum, 1999). In an age of identity politics, proving victimhood may potentially help social and ethnic groups gain increased attention for their plight, and encourage formal apologies and reparations (Calhoun, 1994: 25). As Smith has noted, even democratic societies rely on a “cultural hegemony” which privileges positive narratives of national history. This can take a severe toll on indigenous peoples, whose own experiences stand at odds with how the country wishes itself to be seen. As Smith explains, some groups “live with a twofold curse”:
First the substantive ills that they are forced to live with are at least in part the result of their traumatic or unjust history; but second, the very account of that past that has entered the memory of the majority of people in the society erases or obfuscates their trauma. Revising the historical account, therefore, becomes a way to gain visibility for the group and is the first step in gaining more social assistance in dealing with the residual ills (Smith: 2005: 15-16).
“Revising the historical account” through the Holocaust often resonates in western societies, where the centrality of the Jews in Christian history gives the Holocaust a special significance (Rubenstein, 1996, 24-5). Further, as the Holocaust is the best documented genocide, public attention (and debate) is almost always assured. Yet there is a twin danger involved. At one level the Holocaust is trivialized when its vocabulary and imagery are irresponsibly invoked, potentially deteriorating the Holocaust’s significance and normalizing anti-Semitism.

At another level, social and ethnic groups framing history through the Holocaust can easily decontextualize their own histories by re-reading past victimization through a very distinctive and wholly different series of events. Presenting European colonization as a “holocaust”, American activist-historians like David Stannard and Ward Churchill have used the Final Solution to repackage the colonization of the Americas as the biggest genocide in history, a precedent for the Holocaust. There are anti-Semitic undertones to much of this work, which presents indigenous people and Jews as competitors for public attention, apology, and reparations. Recently, this style of historical representation has migrated to Australia, Canada, and several other countries, including New Zealand (MacDonald, 2003). This article concentrates on the use of such discourse in the United States and Canada.


The Holocaust’s emergence was a gradual process which took several decades to accomplish. A concomitant to the growing importance of the Holocaust was its “Americanization” – where America began to increasingly define its own national history against the Holocaust (Novick, 1999: 20; Flanzbaum, 1999). While largely dormant in public discussions of the War in the 1950s, the Holocaust came into its own during the 1960s. Events in Israel such as the trial of Adolf Eichmann (1961) and the Six Day War (1967) unleashed a flood of survivor memories and promoted public discussion (Marrus: 1987, 2; 4-5; Novick, 1999, 148-52; Friedlander, 1994, 155). In America, the civil rights movement and the growing fear amongst Diaspora Jews of “losing” Israel prompted increased remembrance during the late 1960s (Diner: 2004, 265-9).

During the 1970s, America’s national identity became increasingly tied to representations of its own past as the antithesis of Nazi Germany. Such perceptions helped reinforce American goodness, especially in the wake of the “national trauma” suffered during and after the Vietnam War (Ball: 2000, 4). 1978 is signposted as a crucial year. First, a neo-Nazi march in Skokie, Illinois touched off a storm of public protest, while NBC’s miniseries “Holocaust” attracted some 120 million viewers (Doneson: 1996, 75). These events prompted President Carter to create a presidential commission on the Holocaust. This among other things, enshrined America’s liberation of the death camps as a central part American identity, promoted the role of America as a haven for survivors, and paved the way for the creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (Greenspan: 1999, 45; Young: 1999, 73).

The post-Cold War era initiated a new era of engagement with the past. In 1993, Schindler’s List was screened, while the USHMM opened in Washington DC. The proximity of the USHMM to major monuments to Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln was no accident. The Museum Council made clear that, “America is the enemy of racism and its ultimate expression, genocide. … in act and word the Nazis denied the deepest tenets of the American people” (Young: 1999, 73). The Holocaust was thus interpreted as “the most un-American of crimes and the very antithesis of American values” (Cole: 2004, 138).

As Levy and Sznaider have argued, the Holocaust has created a “new, global narrative”, which emphasizes the need to protect human rights internationally (Levy and Sznaider, 2002: 89). The German admission of guilt, recognition of Jews as a nation, and compensation (through reparations to Israel) was the moment, Barkan posits, “at which the modern notion of restitution for historical injustices was born” (Barkan, 2001: xxiv). Holocaust survivors set the parameters for what other groups felt they could reasonably demand. These demands included “transitional justice” (punishment of the perpetrators and reparations from the perpetrators); “apologies and statements of regret”; then “efforts to commemorate past suffering” through forms of “communicative history” (Torpey, 2003: 6-7).

An “age of apologies” (Nytagodien and Neal, 2005: 465), heralded by “reparations politics” (Torpey, 2001) began in many western countries during the post-Cold War era. Governments, churches, and private firms were increasingly held to account for past actions against indigenous peoples and other disadvantaged groups. Old “heroic, forward-looking tales that underpinned the idea of progress for two centuries”, were now replaced by “narratives of injustice and crime…” (Torpey, 2001: 334). This has made the Holocaust a “kind of gold standard against which to judge other cases of injustice”. The Holocaust acted as a window of opportunity, giving hope to other groups by presenting a frame of reference and a model to follow (Torpey: 2001: 338). Absent the Holocaust, “other projects oriented to coming to terms with the past would not have been so successful”. Torpey continues that “widespread Holocaust consciousness, in turn, has been the water in which reparations activists have swum, defining much of the discourse they use to enhance their aims” (Torpey, 2003: 2-3).

Stein too notes the widespread appeal of the Holocaust as an “atrocity tale” par excellence, possessing “protagonist identify fields” (comparing oneself to the Jews) and “antagonist identity fields” (accusing one’s enemies of being Nazis). A series of binary opposites are created which help frame the protagonist’s case (Stein, 1998: 521-2). Indeed, during the 1990s, the Holocaust was instrumentalized in a number of ways. First, its strong black/white Manichaeism could be used to reign in contrarian group members, and encourage loyalty to the group. Second using extreme language helped present a united and morally righteous front to outsiders. Finally, the Holocaust allowed leaders to strongly promote their group against other groups in collective struggles for power and recognition.

The use of Holocaust imagery in indigenous movements has become widespread, in part reflecting the anger and frustration of many activists that the US government has yet to acknowledge and apologize for the sins of previous administrations (Friedberg, 2000). During the 1990s, historians of American Indian history like Stannard and Churchill presented the Americanization of the Holocaust as inherently destructive to indigenous interests, sugar-coating American history by highlighting its goodness to Jews, while suppressing its own dark past. They have set a template which indigenous activists in other countries have loosely followed.

In 1992, Stannard published American Holocaust, followed by Churchill’s A Little Matter of Genocide in 1997. Both Stannard and Churchill make widespread use of the Holocaust as a means of highlighting indigenous suffering, while openly criticizing the significance of the Holocaust in American life. This seems reasonable to both authors in light of the fact that the decimation of North and South America’s indigenous nations (at potentially 100 million casualties) was the largest genocide in history, with mortality rates hovering between 90-95 percent in most cases (Stannard, 1992: x; Churchill, 1997: 4). While the pre-conquest population of the United States can never be established with certainty, it did number in the millions before European colonisation, but by 1920 was reduced to less than 250,000 persons (Stiffarm and Lane, 1992: 37).

An important objective of Stannard and Churchill’s work has been to re-humanize indigenous victims of genocide, stressing their innocence and sophistication (Stannard, 1992: 239-40). By contrast, America’s founding fathers, from Washington and Jefferson to Jackson, are presented as Nazi-like killers (Stannard, 1992: 119-21; 241), infused as with a “virulent Anglo-Saxon supremacism” little different from “nazi Aryanist ideology” (Churchill, 1997: 211; 228-32). In these cases, any ambiguity about what the colonizers intended is stripped away. Seen through the Nazi lens, the “American Holocaust” is a continual killing process that covers five centuries.

A further goal of Stannard’s work has been to refute the long-held belief that disease was but an “inadvertent” or “unintended consequence” of colonialism. Stannard focuses on forms of killing shared by both the Holocaust and the American genocide: disease, forced labor, forced marches, and other conditions calculated to bring about the deaths of a target group. If disease and slave labour are part of the Holocaust, Stannard reasons, they must also be included as part of the “American Holocaust” (Stannard, 1996: 89; 258-60).

Holocaust uniqueness is also overtly challenged, and anti-Semitism is presented as a derivative form of hatred, little different than Christian hatred of indigenous peoples (Stannard, 1992: 184). The Third Reich was more a “crystallisation” of Columbus era themes such as “racial supremacism, conquest, and genocide”. Thus: “Nazism was never unique: it was instead only one of an endless succession of ‘New World Orders’ set in motion by ‘the Discovery’” (Churchill, 1997: 92). Claiming that Hitler was inspired by America’s success at killing its indigenous peoples, Stannard concludes that “on the way to Auschwitz the road’s pathway led straight through the heart of the Indians and of North and South America” (Stannard, 1992: 246).

In their work, Stannard and Churchill openly question the significance of the Holocaust, and display anti-Semitic undertones when taking aim at historians like Deborah Lipstadt and Steven Katz, who promote Holocaust uniqueness. Institutional denial by the American establishment is “common … even readily understandable, if contemptible” (Stannard, 1996: 151). However both men slate Holocaust historians and “a substantial component of Zionism” for promoting an “exclusivist” interpretation of the Holocaust. “Exclusivists” engage in “holocaust denial”, since by denying that other historical atrocities are genocide, they deny other “holocausts” – which both Churchill and Stannard use interchangeably and provocatively with genocide (Churchill, 1997: 7; 11; 30-1; 36).

There are justifiable concerns about the Stannard-Churchill thesis. First, it suggests that the vast majority of indigenous peoples, even those killed by epidemics, were the victims of intentional genocide. While some disease was deliberately spread, most epidemics raged ahead of the explorers and colonizers, and were hardly comparable to conditions in Nazi ghettoes (Barkan, 2003: 122). Europe too had forty-one smallpox epidemics and pandemics from 1520 to 1899, yet here no one suggests that intentional genocide is at work (Stiffarm and Lane, 1992: 31). At another level, there seems little reason for a full-scale assault on Holocaust historians. While denial (and ignorance) of indigenous genocide is widespread, the authors concentrate their attack on one ethnic/religious group, whose scholarship differs little from that of other American historians.

Stannard and Churchill, while influential in many indigenous movements, force us into accepting a devil’s bargain. Recognizing and sympathizing with the suffering of indigenous peoples now also seems to involve accepting the counterfactual that Holocaust historians are hypocrites and manipulators, and further: that the Holocaust’s current status is merely “the hegemonic product of many years of strenuous intellectual labor by a handful of Jewish scholars and writers who have dedicated much if not all of their professional lives to the advancement of this exclusivist idea” (Stannard, 1996: 167). In short, the invocation of the Holocaust sensationalizes debate, stopping meaningful discussion from occurring. It provides ammunition for those who deny or downplay indigenous suffering and helps alienate the general public.

Canada did commit forms of genocide during the colonial era. Newfoundland’s Beothuk were entirely decimated by low intensity conflict and starvation in the 18th century. Nova Scotia’s Mi’kmaq seem to have been victims of intentional killing, through the spread of poisoned food and massacres, also in the 18th century (V. Miller, 2004: 259-60). While Canadians know more about America’s brutal treatment of its indigenous people, the Canadian experience has also been bleak. In the 1990s, “Levels of unemployment, undereducation, violent death, imprisonment, and ill health outstrip[ed] those of other Canadians in virtually all age brackets” (Fleras and Elliott, 1992: 8-9; 16-18). Others have described the conditions on Indian reserves as “not inconsistent with purposeful genocide”, going so far as to claim an “ethno-spiritual holocaust” of indigenous peoples (Boldt, 1993: 61).

The literature generally recognizes four distinct phases in Settler-Aboriginal relations. The first period was marked by “symbiosis and cooperation” and endured from early contact to 1867. The 1763 Royal Proclamation recognized aboriginal control over their lands, termed vast tracts of land “Indian country” and forbade European settlement except by royal license (Consadine and Consadine, 2001: 50-1). The second phase, “Assimilation, protection, civilization, and absorption” ran from 1867 to 1945. Confederation created a two-tiered system with federal and provincial governments which froze out native self-government (Fleras and Elliott, 1992: 40-1). Aboriginal people lost their status and were soon treated as “wards, or guardians, of federal authority”, and were consequently denied the ability to represent themselves in provincial or federal legislatures, law courts, or land markets (Hall, 2003: 475).

The “need” for European settlement and agricultural lands gave way to a series of thirteen numbered treaties between 1871 and 1929. Aboriginal peoples surrendered land for settlement in return for concessions from the government such as reserve land allotted on a per capita basis, and a variety of privileges, tax exemptions and government services. However in most cases, the treaty process “was riddled with deceit”, being seen as vehicle to expediently separate aboriginal peoples from their land (Fleras and Elliott, 1992: 30-1; Schouls, 2000: 40). The Department of Indian Affairs was created in 1880, expressly for the purpose of first taking control of aboriginal lands, then later, promoting forms of social control and assimilation (Schouls, 2000: 41).

The period from 1945 to 1973 is known as “Canadianization”, when attempts were made to integrate Aboriginal peoples and given them formal equality (Fleras and Elliott, 1992: 42-3). In 1969, the Trudeau government’s White Paper sought to terminate treaties, privatize and municipalize the reserve system, and dismantle Indian Affairs. These attempts were met with outrage, amid charges of “cultural genocide” (Hall, 2003: 496-7). The final phase of “Limited Aboriginal Autonomy” continues still. The defeat of the White Paper demonstrated a level of aboriginal anger and activism not previously seen. Aboriginal groups used this newfound sense of unity and purpose to seek justice and equality on their own terms. In 1971, the federal government provided a Core Funding Program, and entertained “limited autonomy” – the return of land to and more control for aboriginal leaders over local funding, etc (Fleras and Elliott, 1992: 43-6). The 1982 Constitution Act (Section 35) formally recognized “aboriginal people” as including Indians, Metis, and Inuit (Russell, 2000: 3-4).

The 1996 Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples has been a landmark in coming to terms with the past. The 3,500 page Report consisted of five volumes, comprising submissions by aboriginal groups and individuals recalling their experiences. Four main types of mistreatment were highlighted: physical and sexual abuse in Residential Schools (as well as their goals of assimilation and cultural destruction); unequal treatment of aboriginal veterans from both world wars; forced relocations of aboriginal communities; and finally the “cultural aggression of the Indian Act”, which banned indigenous customs and laid the basis for forms of “internal colonialism” (Cairns, 2003: 77-8).


In 1879, a residential school was established in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, which acted a model for the further 500 schools established in America, through which 100,000 Native Americans passed until compulsory schooling ended in the 1930s (Milloy: 1996: 13; Smith, 2006; Wallace, 1995). Strongly influenced by the American system, Canadian residential schools were first established by the mid 1880s, and continued until the 1970s. Aboriginal children were to be assimilated and made productive members of Canadian society, as workers and servants at the lowest rungs of the socio-economic ladder. Thus, school days consisted of a half day of studies, then a half day of trades-related activities: blacksmithing, carpentry or auto mechanics for boys, sewing, cooking and other domestic activities for girls. In this the federal government worked in partnership with the Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, and United Churches, who administered the day to day operations of the schools (Milloy, 1999).

Overall, some 100,000 children passed through the network of 125 schools that operated from the 1880s to the 1970s (Barkan, 2003: 130-1). Children were forced to attend and live at the schools for ten months each year. Beatings, verbal, physical, and sexual abuse were common. Indian languages were forbidden, as was the practice of any traditional beliefs (Comeau and Santin, 1995: 127). As deputy minister of Indian Affairs Duncan Campbell Scott argued in 1920, epitomizing the attitudes of the time: “I want to get rid of the Indian problem … Our object is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politics and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department…” (J. Miller, 2004: 35).

In ridding Canada of its “Indian problem”, indigenous cultures were destroyed and personal lives shattered. As Hare and Barman put it: “The Department of Indian Affairs was ensuring the inability of Aboriginal Peoples to compete socially or intellectually with their white neighbours, while also attempting to remove any traces of their culture that would ensure their survival within their own communities” (2000: 336-7). In short, a catch-22 of the worst kind, which has created a multitude of social problems, spawning forms of intergenerational trauma (Comeau and Santin,1995: 128). The Indian Residential School Survivors Society outlines the scope of the problem:

First Nation communities experience higher rates of violence: physical, domestic abuse (3x higher than mainstream society); sexual abuse: rape, incest, etc. (4-6x higher); lack of family and community cohesion; suicide (6x higher); addictions: drugs, alcohol, food; health problems: diabetes (3x higher), heart disease, obesity; poverty; unemployment; illiteracy; high school dropout (63% do not graduate); despair; hopelessness; and more (IRSSS, 2006).
The 1996 Report clearly stated problems of neglect, under-funding, and widespread abuse, not to mention the “very high death rate” from tuberculosis, as well as “overcrowding, lack of care and cleanliness and poor sanitation”. Overall, the Report was a damning indictment of the government’s treatment of indigenous peoples (AINC-INAC: 1996). In 1998, the Canadian government released a “Statement of Reconciliation” to native peoples, a somewhat weaker apology than indigenous groups would have liked, but a step forward nonetheless. This was accompanied by a $350 million “Healing Fund” (TBS-SCT: 1998). Churches involved in the residential schools had submitted apologies much earlier. The United Church gave its “Apology to First Nations” in 1986, followed by the Oblate Missionaries of Mary Immaculate in 1991. In 1993, Anglican Archbishop Michael Peers delivered his Church’s apology, followed a year later by the Presbyterian Church’s “Confession” (Degagné, 2001).

A precedent for a Canadian discussion of genocide can be found in Australia, where, as Moses observes, Australian “liberals and leftists” have had their views of history “transformed by the Holocaust”, which has played an important role by its “seepage into popular cultural memory” (Moses, 2001: 106). While Aboriginal peoples were victims of massacre and disease during the colonization of Australia in the 18th and 19th centuries (Moses, 2000: 95-8; Reynolds, 1987: 8), only forced assimilation through residential schooling and adoption has been recognized as genocide under international law.

Article 2, section “d” of the UN Genocide Convention (1948) defines genocide as “Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group”. Somewhere between 20,000-25,000 Aboriginal children, now known as the “stolen generations” were separated from their parents between 1910 and 1970 (Manne, 2001: 27; Bartrop, 2001: 77; Tatz, 2002: 18-19). The term genocide had no mainstream appeal until 1997, when the Australian Human Rights Commission’s report “Bringing Them Home” argued that Aboriginal child removals did qualify as genocide. The report horrified many Australians who argued that removing children was hardly a genocidal crime, even if under international law this was technically the case (Curthoys and Docker, 2001: 1).

Like Australia, Canadian authorities also took indigenous children from their homes, forced them to give up their language and culture, and placed them in an environment where they were sometimes subjected to verbal, physical, and sexual abuse. However, no recognition of genocide in Canada has been forthcoming. In October, 2005, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled (by 9-0) that removing Aboriginal children and forcing them to attend residential schools was not grounds for suing the government. Specific “wrongful abusive acts” would have to be proven by individuals to justify legal action. While the Court conceded that safety measures were “clearly inadequate”, the “foreseeable risk of sexual assault to the children was not established” according to the standards of the time (Gordon, 2005).

In the absence of any Australian-style recognition or even debate akin to the Australian “History Wars” (MacIntyre: 2003, 146-7), the Holocaust has become an expedient for reinterpreting indigenous experiences. Neu and Therrien’s Accounting for Genocide (2003) draws numerous parallels between the Holocaust and Canadian handling of aboriginal issues. Much of their work falls into comparative assessments of Aboriginal peoples and Jews, and follows the Stannard-Churchill lead.

The authors signal the importance of Zygmunt Bauman’s work on bureaucracy and the Holocaust, applying Bauman’s understanding of the Holocaust to Canada’s own bureaucratic handling of aboriginal issues. They highlight a number of parallels. First, both Nazi Germany and Victorian Canada had idealized visions of what they could achieve if troublesome “others” were either assimilated or removed. In both cases, Jews or Indians were perceived as “weeds” to be removed from the “ideal garden” (Neu and Therrien, 2003: 13). Second, bureaucratic forms of genocide arose out of a rational pursuit of efficiency. Both Jews and Indians were problematized and solutions were sought to these “problems” through “cost/benefit analysis, budgeting and the development of incentive and disincentive schemes” (Neu and Therrien, 2003: 14-15).

Canadian experiences also figure as a precedent for the Holocaust: “The Nazi death camps, social engineering experiments in the extreme, may have found their infancy in the social engineering projects of Canada: assimilation and absorption, compulsory enfranchisement …” (Neu and Therrien, 2003: 22). Such comparisons are tenuous, in that when the Holocaust was contemplated, Jews were already assimilated and were in most respects, model German citizens. Can mass extermination really be seen as a form of extreme “social engineering”? This type of moral relativism continues throughout. The authors ask, referring to the speed and compressed nature of the Holocaust: “Which is worse – the murdering of millions of human beings over a short period of time, or slowly dissolving their existence through dehumanization and disease and coercion over several generations? … the end result of the two methods of extermination are similar” (Neu and Therrien, 2003: 23). This of course entirely avoids the horrors of the Holocaust itself and the very real differences between cultural and physical eradication.

The authors do concede that the Nazi extermination “of persons” was “different in degree and type” from the Canadian attempts at assimilation or “extermination of culture”. Canada, with its highly developed “accounting mechanisms” seems not to have needed to “choose outright extermination” as Nazi Germany did. The authors however, note that this strategy was only adopted after “moving” the Jews “around” and “forced migration” were unsuccessful (Neu and Therrien, 2003: 23). We then hear that the Holocaust, in terms of its end result, was better for the Jews. Again:

Canadian Indian policy may not have been as overt or concentrated as the Holocaust would prove to be – but it was nonetheless violent and achieved much the same ends. Indeed, it might even be said that Canadian policy has been more effective than Nazi policy, since none of Canada’s First Nations have yet to regain full statehood, whereas the Jews have Israel (Neu and Therrien, 2003: 23-4).
Not concerning oneself with death tolls and degrees of horror removes the significance of the Holocaust entirely. How can the authors posit that “the same ends” have been achieved when six million of one people have been mercilessly slaughtered without a similar end result for the other group? The quote demonstrates a marked ignorance of Nazi goals. These were not designed to repress Jewish desires for statehood. Jews did not “win” the Holocaust by gaining Israel; indeed, survivors “won” by the mere fact of surviving.

At a definitional level, the authors also seek to erase differences between physical and cultural eradication. They call for a reinterpretation of genocide based on work by Israel Charny (1994). Using a typology created by Charny, they claim Canada is guilty of “genocide in the course of colonization”; “genocide as the result of ecological destruction”; and “cultural genocide”. Even if these seem to “envision” provisions of the Convention, neither author makes a clear case for genocide based on existing international law (Neu and Therrien, 2003: 15-16). Unfortunately, the authors misread Charny or purposefully distort his work to achieve a desired effect.

In 2000, Neu argued that Charny saw cultural genocide and genocide as “ultimately hav[ing] the same effect” (Neu, 2000: 273). Yet, Charny is clear that cultural genocide or “ethnocide” is not equal to genocide. In his “Proposed Definitional Matrix for Crimes of Genocide”, it’s clear that “in present proposed definitions, ethnocide is not subsumed under genocide” (Charny, 1994, 76-77 Italics in original). Further, an essential aspect of his definition of genocide is “the mass killing of substantial numbers of human beings, when not in the course of military action against the military forces of an avowed enemy” (Charny, 1994, 75). There is thus some distortion of the literature on genocide to make it fit the Canadian case.

Calls for a more inclusive definition of genocide are hardly new. In 1973, Davis and Zannis called for a wider definition of genocide to include not just “mass homicide” but cultural destruction as well, “warping and mutilating the lives of groups of people”. The Holocaust, they felt, had overshadowed the UNGC (Davis and Zannis, 1973: 175-6). In 1997, Chrisjohn and Young’s The Circle Game, lavishly invoked genocide in an attempt to systematically understand the horrific crimes committed in residential schools. Like Therrien and Neu, they saw the differences between “genocide” and “cultural genocide” as being purely semantic. Cultural genocide in Canada deserved to be called genocide despite what international law might maintain to the contrary (Chrisjohn and Young, 1997). One might argue that cultural genocide has been committed in Canada, as several resolutions by the Assembly of First Nations have stated (2003; 2004). One might also argue that the UNGC needs to be updated, or has in some respects become obsolete (Davis and Zannis, 1973). Nevertheless, this should not excuse trivializing the Holocaust or misinterpreting genocide scholars who have worked to create more inclusive categories for analysis.


In 2001, inspired by Chrisjohn and Young, a controversial report entitled Hidden from History: The Canadian Holocaust was released. The report was drafted by members of “The Truth Commission into Genocide in Canada” but was ostensibly written by Kevin Annett, the “Investigating and Research Officer”. Annett and his colleagues argue that 50,000 indigenous peoples either disappeared or were killed in residential schools, and their report goes on to lay out a series of charges using the Genocide Convention as a means of structuring the report (TCGC, 2001: 89).

Within the report, the indigenous relationship to the Holocaust is extensive, including such comparisons as ideology, racism, methods, policies, intent, mass following, collaboration, and attempts at cover-up and denial after the fact. The report is a product of six years of research and relies largely on the testimony of 38 surviving residents (TCGC, 2001: 41). Crucial to Annett’s thesis is the Canadian state intended (with cooperation from the four main Churches) to exterminate indigenous peoples. Annett sees parallels with the “Nazi Holocaust” in the “huge and systematic relocation of subjugated peoples” and the “conditions of planned disease and death”. Death was not an unhappy consequence of the system but the desired end goal (TCGC, 2001: 51).

He draws a series of linkages between the 1942 Wannsee Conference and a Canadian conference in 1910, when church and state elites “agreed that the residential schools were to be the definitive means by which their general aim of extinguishing native society was to be accomplished” (TCGC, 2001: 38). Residential schools are thus described as the “death camps of the Canadian Holocaust”, and the report features thirteen references to “death camps” (TCGC, 2001: 4; 77). School structures were also “like concentration camps, on a hierarchical military basis under the absolute control of a Principal” (TCGC, 2001: 13).

As with the Stannard-Churchill critique, Annett charts how Native children were equated with disease, echoing Nazi “racial hygienics” which “depicted Jews and other ‘aliens’ as diseased lifeforms which had to be eradicated for the health and safety of society.” The residential schools thus permit forms of euthanasia of “defective children” in a manner little different from Nazi Germany’s T-4 program, to which Annett draws overt comparisons (TCGC, 2001: 32). Other claims include the deliberate spreading of infectious diseases like tuberculosis to kill as many children as possible (TCGC, 2001: 37-8).

At another level, indigenous leaders are accused of collaborating in the destruction of their own people, in much the same way as Jewish “Prominents” and Kapos. In both cases, genocide was the result of “widespread collaboration of leaders of the conquered peoples in shipping their own people into genocidal conditions, and of informers and “enforcers” recruited from among the targeted populations” (TCGC, 2001: 54). By the 1950s, argues Annett, the first generation of “patterned” native leaders has been “groomed” by the churches and state. They went on to do much of the administrative work in the schools, including perpetuating the same abuses (TCGC, 2001: 54-5). This selling out was and is little different from the way that “the Judenrat delivered fellow Jews to the death camps...” (TCGC, 2001).

What is the goal of this sensationalized report? In their “Program” of May, 2002, the TCGC make a series of demands, which focus on acknowledging and representing genocide on one hand, while punishing the perpetrators on the other. This includes establishing a “National Aboriginal Holocaust Remembrance Day”, and a series of “Aboriginal Holocaust Museums” in former residential schools. Supplementing these would be memorials and traveling exhibitions. Punishment is also demanded. The Roman Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian churches and the United Church of Canada are to be stripped of their charitable status. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the federal Department of Indian Affairs are to be disbanded, while an “International War Crimes Tribunal into Genocide in Canada” is to be established (TCGC, 2002).

While some of these goals are laudable, there are a number of obvious problems with this report. The first is the constant invocation of the Holocaust and the squeezing and jamming of its facts to fit the Canadian experience. Annett argues in favor of a deliberate intent to exterminate indigenous populations, a claim which the facts do not bear out. Annett’s examples come primarily from British Columbia and the Prairie provinces, where the majority of these schools were located. However, as Jim Miller notes in his seminal work on the schools, these off-reserve schools were always “a minority of schools provided for status Indians by the federal government and the Christian churches.” The majority of Indian children were enrolled in day schools located on the reserves. Further, there were few such schools in eastern Canada and only one in Atlantic Canada (J. Miller, 2004: 245).

Miller is critical of genocide claims, seeing “cultural assimilation” as a more scholarly description of what occurred. He interprets Chrisjohn and Young’s case for genocide, for example, as “stat[ing] an argument - such as that residential schooling equaled genocide - over and over again in one chapter, and thereafter argue as though they have established the point irrefutably” (Miller, 1999/2000). This seems to me somewhat dismissive, in that the case for cultural genocide can certainly be made, while “assimilation” seems a rather weak descriptor of the mammoth state effort involved in forcibly destroying indigenous identity.

Yet, if the purpose of such schools was extermination, a more concerted effort would surely have been necessary to get maximum numbers of indigenous pupils in these schools. While the use of Wannsee, Nuremberg, death camps and Final Solution throughout stresses the intentional, industrialized, nature of the “Canadian Holocaust”, such terms merely disguise the fact that physical eradication cannot be conclusively proven as a key goal of Canada’s policies towards First Nations. Nor does it need to be for the government to be in breach of the UNGC.

Finally, of the substance of the report itself, there are problems. James Craven, Tribunal Judge for the “Inter-Tribal Tribunal on Residential Schools in Canada”, held in June, 1998, has cautioned against Annett’s report, arguing that “the names and affidavits of Harriet Nahanee, Amy Talio, Donna Talio, Frank Martin and Helen Michel have been used and appropriated repeatedly without their permission in Annett’s writings and ‘work’” (Craven, 2001). Craven’s criticism, however, is not motivated by a radically different interpretation of Canadian history, for he also argues that all five types of genocide under the UNGC were committed during the 19th and 20th centuries (Craven, 2000: 4).

In legal claims for compensation before the Canadian courts, many of the already 12,000 plaintiffs have claimed to be victims of genocide under II (d), yet there had been little public discussion about this issue. By sensationalizing the issues, Annett’s work contributes little that is constructive to a discussion of genocide in Canada. He is more likely (as activists in other countries have done) to alienate potential supporters. By tying genocide and the Holocaust so closely together, a meaningful examination of the facts and their interpretation through international law becomes that much more difficult.


In both the United States and Canada, the Holocaust functions as a rhetorical device, and to some extents a straw man, that can be instrumentalized to highlight indigenous suffering. There are a number of problems with this approach. First, forms of anti-Semitism (however latent) are marshalled to prove that indigenous peoples have received a raw deal, relative to Jews. The argument is as follows: the Holocaust is not worse, it’s just been made to seem worse because the victims are members of the white elite and little different from white elites who perpetrated atrocities against indigenous peoples. While indigenous activists rely on our sympathy for Holocaust victims to encourage us to sympathize with indigenous peoples, they pull the rug from under us by the accusing Jews of being hypocrites and cynical manipulators.

Second, such comparisons do indigenous peoples little good. If the events are decidedly not like the Holocaust, the public space for sympathy is narrowed. The public is not asked to understand indigenous suffering on its own merits, but according to a unique and unprecedented yardstick. As Gaita has rightly cautioned, the Holocaust possesses “a distinctive evil” that stretches beyond the “conceptual and moral reach” of the term genocide (Gaita, 1997: 18-19). The Holocaust is thus a “bad paradigm for our sense of the evil of genocide”. He rightly advocates “disentangling” the Holocaust from genocide – thus allowing Australia to suffer from genocide without Nazis clouding the debate (Gaita, 1998: 40).

Third, the public are sometimes forced to buy into anti-Semitic stereotypes if they choose to support indigenous peoples through this type of discourse. This can create a climate where anti-Semitism becomes normalized and even accepted. The case of former Assembly of First Nations leader David Ahenakew comes to mind. In a recent speech to the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations conference he argued that Jews had started World War II by “damn near own[ing] all of Germany prior to the war. That’s how Hitler came in. He was going to make damn sure that the Jews didn’t take over Germany or Europe … That’s why he fried six million of those guys, you know. Jews would have owned the God-damned world. And look what they’re doing. They’re killing people in Arab countries” (CTV News: 2006). Such comments are unacceptable in any society.

Finally, there are aspects of Nazi German policy that are comparable. Better comparisons might be gained by looking at German lebensraum policies against Slavic populations, particularly Poles and Russians. Nazi attitudes to Slavic populations closely mirror those of colonial authorities who at one level sought to assimilate “Germanic” looking Slavs through the Lebensborne program, then sought to exterminate and enslave millions (Clay and Leapman, 1995). Indeed, as Pool has argued, Hitler was a “devoted reader of Karl May’s books on the American West as a youth”. He made frequent refrences to Russians as “Redskins”, seeing parallels between German attempts to conquer Russia and similar attempts to colonize the American frontier (Poole, 1997: 254-255). Ultimately, history is rich with examples of brutality, inhumanity and genocide. While the Holocaust clearly occupies a unique role in genocide studies, it is not (as the Australians would say) a “tall poppy”, that deserves to be cut down. We need to be careful about stepping on one victimized people to elevate another, even if seeking justice has been a long and arduous journey.


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1 This article is the outcome of two conference presentations, first at the ACSANZ Biennial conference at the University of Otago in April, 2006, and the Jerusalem Conference in Canadian Studies, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, July, 2006. My thanks to Jim Miller, John MacLaren, Frank Iacobucci, Richard Menkis, Pierre Anctil, Sarah Feingold, Arie Shachar, and Elliot Tepper for their comments and suggestions, and to the Halbert Center for funding my travel to Israel.

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