The Inroads listserv began in 1997 as a means to link Inroads readers and others interested in policy discussion. With more than 100 subscribers, it offers one of the few chances for people of diverse views to grapple with social and political issues in depth. To subscribe, write to Inroads at and we will add your name to the list.

On February 18, the CBC reported that MP Leah Gazan (NDP – Winnipeg Centre), whose motion to recognize what happened in residential schools as genocide received unanimous consent in the House of Commons last October, now proposed to outlaw denial of that genocide as “hate speech.”¹ The Inroads listserv responded quickly, and honed in on a question that became the subject of an intense – but civil and informed – discussion: What is genocide?

February 18

I hadn’t realized that Parliament had unanimously voted to call what happened at the residential schools genocide. Once something is called genocide, then the next logical step is to make denying it a criminal act.


According to the UN Genocide Convention, which Canada has signed on to,

Genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.²

Seems to fit.

Okay, now let’s see if we can discuss this calmly. My first question: Do you oppose all legislation against hate speech?


Two answers, Frances:

One: I do not believe that the same word adequately describes what was done in residential schools and in Nazi death camps.

Two. As someone all of whose grandparents, uncles and aunts were killed in the latter, I still support the United States in rejecting restrictions on hate speech.

Here is my thinking on this.

Consider the statements below and how we are to react to them. Should we

  1. Make it illegal to express them publicly,
  2. Disprove them.
  3. Ignore them.

A: The six million killed by the Nazis is an exaggeration.
B: The death camps are a myth.
C: The residential schools did some good as well as harm.
D: The residential schools did more good than harm.

My answer to all of them is to prove them untrue where that is the case, but not to use the state to punish the person who stated them, however hateful the content. It comes down to the simple proposition that in the end “because it hurts my feelings” is insufficient justification for the use of state sanctions. Otherwise, we open ourselves to what we see in certain academic settings where discussion of controversial issues is silenced (and people’s careers threatened) because they (might) hurt someone’s feelings.


Thanks for this, Henry. I hate to spoil a good argument, but I find myself largely in agreement with you.



How about your thoughts on:

NDP MP Leah Gazan, who got the House of Commons last October to unanimously recognize that genocide occurred at residential schools, now wants to take the issue a step further by drafting legislation to outlaw attempts to deny that genocide and make false assertions about residential schools.

“Denying genocide is a form of hate speech,” said Gazan, who represents the riding of Winnipeg Centre.

“That kind of speech is violent and re-traumatizes those who attended residential school.” …

The Office of Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller said he would be interested in reviewing the proposed legislation.

“Residential school denialism attempts to hide the horrors that took place in these institutions,” Miller’s office told CBC News.³


I agree that the residential school system constituted genocide.

I don’t think it is wise or helpful to compare horrors and suffering. My imagination can hardly stretch to comprehend the Shoah. But there are other horrors: Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Rwanda, slavery in the Americas …

I am willing to keep considering Gazan’s legislation idea to see if there is something I have missed, but I start from the position that it won’t help and will quite possibly do harm. Seems like an ill-considered response.


We are getting closer, though not yet on genocide: On one level it is just semantics; on another, however, since the term genocide really only emerged with the Shoah, I find attaching it to the residential schools a bridge too far.

Consider not uncommon historical examples of Nation A conquering lands belonging to Nation B. The conqueror imposes the language and culture of A upon B. For example, this is what happened when the Americans took over parts of what been Spanish colonies by force. Genocide?

PS: The trouble with semantics is that they can sometimes kill. This could be the case now if ideologues denouncing it as white colonialism manage to keep an armed intervention in desperate Haiti from happening.


I think we need to distinguish physical genocide, i.e. the attempt by a majority group to kill any or all of a minority group or people on the basis of their racial, tribal, religious character, from cultural genocide, i.e. the attempt to extirpate the linguistic, cultural, religious identity of a minority group by imposing the culture of the dominant group to the exclusion of that of the minority one.

Examples of the first would include the Armenian massacres of World War I by the Turks, the Holocaust, Rwanda 1994, Tigray in recent years. Examples of the second would include the Uyghurs in China, First Nations in Canada and various other New World societies, and arguably what would happen to Ukraine if Putin had his way.

The lines are not always clearcut, but the examples I cite may help to clarify the discussion.


Why is this a useful distinction?

The UN definition of genocide, which lacks an adjective to modify it, covers every one of the cases you list.


There seems to me to be an important difference between the desire to physically exterminate a particular group of people and the desire to extirpate their cultural identity and replace it with another. While many Canadians might accept that an element of cultural genocide was at play in our historical treatment of First Nations, they would not accept the argument that the physical extermination of First Nations was the name of the game in this country. Perhaps the drafters of the UN definition may think it makes no difference how we define the word genocide – ask the victims of physical genocide if they agree,


I follow you, Phil, but what you are saying does not quite make sense to me.

First, we should not make arguments based on what “many Canadians” might accept. On that reasoning, we’d still have the death penalty. Surely we need labels that state frankly what happened, whether or not “many” agree.

It has been established that the purpose of the residential school system and its companion, the Indian Act, was to eliminate First Nations as societies, and that such leaders as John A Macdonald wished to “kill the Indian in the child.” It’s true that the physical side of this involved starvation, residential segregation, separation of children from their parents, mistreatment of children and policing, not death camps.

I think it does not advance understanding to try to compare horrors. But I wonder if you are thinking that we risk normalizing or “demoting” the massive horror of the Shoah by naming other instances with the same term. Maybe that is the case. But the drafters of the UN Convention did not think so. It always seemed to me that they just did not want anything remotely like the Shoah to ever happen again, to anyone.


I’m increasingly sceptical of attempts to use extreme words as a way to fan the flames of solidarity, discontent and resistance.

As Henry pointed out, genocide was coined to describe the Holocaust. (I’m not sure why we needed a new word.) But once it was associated with the Holocaust, people recoiled from the word genocide in horror. So naturally all the oppressed people of the world wanted access to that horror.

As far as I can make out, then, killing or causing distress to two members of a group can be genocide, as long as it’s done with the intent to destroy part of a group. (Well, two is part, isn’t it?) How do you prove intent? Or lack of intent? The result: “Well, I guess genocide isn’t really serious.”

The point is, laws don’t work unless they’re respected, in both senses of the word. Language escalation creates scepticism of national and international law, which does no one any good.


The origin of the term genocide goes back to 1944. It was framed by Raphael Lemkin, with the Holocaust very much in mind, to refer to the attempted destruction of a people. To that degree, physical destruction was central to the original definition. And to that degree, it could be extended in its original meaning to include other cases such as the Armenian massacres, the Rwandan massacre and many others throughout history.

I have no problem with widening the definition to include the extirpation of cultural identities of the type that the historical treatment of First Nations in this country often entailed. But if we are going to use the term genocide in this case, I think it is important to distinguish it from the physical extermination that has underlain the practice of genocide in the cases referred to above. If we fail to do so, by not inserting the term cultural genocide into the discussion, we end up equating Canada’s treatment of First Nations with the practice of the Turks during World War I, the Nazis during World War II or the Hutu exterminationists. And that simply won’t do, Frances, however much you may wish to argue the contrary.


Phil, Lemkin was closely involved in the drafting of the Genocide Convention and it is very explicit that “killing” is just one of the means by which genocide can be accomplished.


Fair enough, Gareth. But that doesn’t change the fact that if we use the term too loosely to apply to any and all cases of cultural, racial or religious victimization, we end up diluting it beyond measure. Is the treatment of the Kurds by Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran a case of genocide? Of the Rohingya in Myanmar? Of Muslims in Modi’s India? Of Christians in various parts of the Middle East? By Boko Haram of its victims in the Sahel?

Genocide is one of those words that has to be used carefully. And if we want to extend its use more broadly, as in the Canadian case where First Nations are concerned, then the qualifier cultural becomes all-important.


Gareth is right about Lemkin, though his wide-ranging accusations of genocide seem to have remained a secret. As Michael A. McDonnell and A. Dirk Moses wrote in the Journal of Genocide Research in 2005,

In “Part III: modern times” of a projected global history of genocide from antiquity to the present, he wrote, inter alia, on the following cases: “1. Genocide by the Germans against the Native Africans”; “3. “Belgian Congo”; “11. Hereros”; “13. Hottentots”; “16. Genocide against the American Indians”; “25. Latin America”; “26. Genocide against the Aztecs”; “27. Yucatan”; “28. Genocide against the Incas”; “29: Genocide against the Maoris of New Zealand”; “38. Tasmanians”; “40. S.W. Africa”; and finally, “41. Natives of Australia.” Then, in a “Report on the preparation of a volume on genocide” dated March–May 1948, a less ambitious project comprising ten chapters, two of which covered extra-European colonial cases: “2. The Indians in Latin America” and “10. The Indians in North America (in part).” The Holocaust, a term Lemkin never used, was not included, although the Armenians and Greeks in Turkey were, as well as the Early Christians, and the Jews of the Middle Ages and Tsarist Russia.⁴

Which brings us back to the problem. If genocide is extreme and rare, we will be horrified. If it’s ubiquitous, well, we shrug.


What worries me is how the politics of hate speech and “social activist” scholarship is having a chilling effect. Part of that chilling effect derives from the expanding definition of words like harm, hate, genocide, discrimination, abuse and now even phrases like residential school denialism and hostile work environment. Paradoxically, I think that our working vocabulary in this area is actually shrinking with each new edition of the Newspeak Dictionary, as each word or phrase is expanded to cover more territory – because, as Arthur nicely put it, “all oppressed people want access to that horror.” The emotional, political and often legal and financial investments are so great that academics are needed to provide some detachment and objectivity that is otherwise lacking.

Volume 4 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report points to the death or disappearance of about 3,000 children over the history of the schools, about half from tuberculosis, and a majority in “school or school-related cemeteries.” Just how clandestine they were is a bit vague and varies quite a bit. Shockingly, but not surprisingly, the main reason most kids’ bodies weren’t returned to their families or home communities was just described as “cost.” The ground-penetrating radar results broadly confirm the Truth and Reconciliation Commission analysis, but there are some credible suggestions that they may be inflating the results because not every disturbance or burial is necessarily of a distinct human skeleton. A sceptical, questioning attitude is essential to this scholarly enterprise, but I know that most of my colleagues are afraid to have one when it comes to Indigenous policy.


Phil, it’s not about what I want. I used to lean towards the use of the term cultural genocide myself, until I actually read the UN definition. Since then, I have not been able to see what is not “physical” about the things that were done to First Nations.

Obviously one is free reject the UN definition, or find ways to modify it.

February 19

According to the UN definition, neither I nor anyone I know is guilty of genocide. That’s a relief.

Wait. I wonder if dozens of people I know are guilty of genocide because they participated in “forcibly transferring children of the group to another group,” i.e., they adopted BIPOC children. If so, I would think many of them are justifiably proud of their part in genocide.

Since immigration involves integration and, likely, eventually absorption, is accepting refugees an example of genocide? Refugees are, after all, forced to migrate.

We can see that there are millions of instances of genocide daily, and since “it does not advance understanding to try to compare horrors,” they’re all equally genocide. (Should we try to prevent the international adoption of Turkish and Syrian children orphaned by the earthquake?)

Has anyone written about “systemic genocide”? In that case, every murder of an Indigenous person, committed by anyone – in fact, every death of an Indigenous person under the average life expectancy of Canadians – would be an instance of genocide. Every Indigenous person unable to speak his or her language is an example of genocide. Every refusal by any government to provide cradle-to-grave education in the appropriate Indigenous language is …

The other day I had a conversation with an Indigenous person about his pipe ceremony, which relegates women to an inferior role. Am I guilty of genocide? I admit it – I had the intent of modifying an Indigenous religious practice.

Perhaps I’m also guilty of reductio ad absurdum. But the UN definition is absurd to begin with.

Really, read Tomson Highway’s Permanent Astonishment⁵ and see if you want to use the same word to describe residential schools and the intentional murder by starvation of Ukrainians.


Arthur, there are plausible and implausible arguments in law. You can’t just pick a phrase and then argue something is genocide without regard to the rest of the definition.

Not all atrocities are genocide. The famines in Ukraine in the 1930s and in Ireland in the 1840s were not genocides because they lacked the intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group. I am willing to court controversy by saying the Canadian state’s current neglect of violence against Indigenous women is also not genocide, because however much it might be rooted in racism, the element of intention isn’t there. But it definitely was with the Indian Residential School system, and this has been documented extensively.

Apartheid and colonialism also aren’t (or aren’t necessarily) genocide. The coalition in Israel has genocidal parties in it, but Israel hasn’t committed genocide – although that was the program of Vladimir Jabotinsky’s Revisionists, and almost all the mainstream Israeli parties now are their descendants. This does not necessarily mean they wanted to kill every last Palestinian, but they did want to destroy them as a people. And that was the “unnamed crime” for which Lemkin developed the concept of genocide.


Perhaps for these various acts where no one is trying to physically wipe out a people, we can use another term. I suggest crime against humanity, which is defined by the International Criminal Court as an act “committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack.” This can include, among other things, murder, extermination, torture, enslavement, sexual violence, deportation or forcible transfer of population or other inhumane acts.


This is an “interesting” discussion about an awful topic, but I would like to make one simple point that may be overlooked in all this. While I understand that it might seem repugnant to separate moral condemnation from “objective” analysis of matters like the Holocaust, ideologically inspired exterminations of entire peoples, deliberately engineered famines, etc., I must assert the necessity of social science analysis requiring some degree of detachment, however painful, from moral repulsion. Here is where the all-encompassing UN definition of genocide falls short. Genocide has indisputably become a highly charged political term – understandably of course. A one-size-fits-all definition has a clear political value. But as an analytical term it just won’t do. Surely the industrial-scale extermination of the Jews of Europe in death camps is a different phenomenon from residential schools designed to “kill the Indian in the child.” Both are morally repulsive and I wouldn’t want to even open a discussion of comparative moral turpitude because it would be fruitless and dispiriting for all concerned. But from a position of social science, conflating the two is only going to make for poor analysis. Here’s where cultural genocide does have a demonstrable analytical advantage over genocide, tout court.

February 20

Indeed, Raphael Lemkin invented the term genocide. In his vision, it was broad enough to cover what today we think of as “cultural genocide.” He contributed to drafting the 1948 Convention. But the text adopted by the UN General Assembly was considerably narrower in scope than what he had envisaged.

African Americans were among the first to invoke the Genocide Convention. In 1951, a very compelling petition focusing on lynching was presented to the United Nations. By then, Lemkin had become a cold warrior. He was dismissive of the African American complaints, arguing that “real” genocide was being perpetrated by the Soviets in the Baltic states.

The definition in the 1948 Convention lists five punishable acts, of which killing members of the group is only one. However, it is misleading to focus on the five acts, because the introductory paragraph requires that any of these acts be committed with the intent to destroy the group. That requirement has been interpreted by the major international courts as requiring an intent to destroy the group physically.

Some commentators have suggested that “forcible transfer of children,” as such, amounts to genocide. But the Convention, as it has been interpreted by the International Court of Justice, requires that such forcible transfer be committed with the intent to exterminate the group physically. If the evidence of the intent to destroy the group is circumstantial, based upon inferences drawn from conduct, it is also necessary to rule out any other reasonable explanation for the facts. This is where most of the allegations of genocide falter.

International lawyers have no monopoly on use of the word genocide any more than criminal lawyers have ownership of terms like murder, torture and rape. Journalists, pundits and politicians, including national legislatures, often use the term in a manner that suggests they have departed from the legal definition. This may be deliberate. Many are probably unaware of the legal definition. Some of them obviously think genocide is no more than a synonym for atrocity.


Hello Bill,

Bringing your unquestioned expertise in this area into our discussion is much appreciated.⁶

Let me put you on the spot. Does Canada’s policy of residential schools qualify as genocide?



The first question to be answered is whether there is direct evidence proving intent to destroy the group physically. This might take the form of official statements or policy documents confirming that in establishing the residential schools the federal government intended the physical destruction of Canada’s First Nations. I’m not aware of such evidence.

Then, the second question: whether evidence of genocidal intent – the intent to destroy the First Nations physically – can be inferred from the conduct of the government of Canada and those who administered the residential schools.

If the answer to the second question is positive, we must consider what is usually the stumbling block. Is there another reasonable explanation for the conduct other than the intent to destroy the group physically? If there is, then the genocide charge fails.

We apply the same reasoning in Canadian law when people are charged with first-degree murder. If they have provided clear direct evidence of homicidal intent in the form of a statement or an admission, this will generally be enough to convict. But if the charge of first-degree murder is based only on inferences drawn from patterns of conduct – what we call “circumstantial evidence” in Canadian law – all other reasonable explanations for the crime must be ruled out.

In my earlier post I emphasized that the restrictive and narrow approach to genocide is a consequence of the interpretation of the Convention adopted by the major international tribunals. My own sense is that while a new and broader interpretation is possible, it is also unlikely. The International Court of Justice adopted its interpretation in 2007, in the Bosnia case. It was invited to revise this in 2015 in the Croatia case but declined to do so. The same is the case for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which maintained a narrow interpretation of the crime throughout its existence, from the late 1990s until it closed in about 2017. And its successor, known as the International Mechanism, has refused to deviate from this in its most recent rulings. These are recent rulings, and they have been confirmed again and again. We are not dealing with some old precedent that has passed its sell-by date.

The reluctance to change the definition is readily explained by the fact that the conduct in question, although it fails to reach the genocide threshold, is easily condemned as a crime against humanity where the requirements are not as restrictive. It’s a bit like distinguishing between first-degree and second-degree murder. Either way, the convict gets sentenced to life in prison.


This has been a stimulating debate and has now prompted my muse to pen some lines:


The very word sends shivers down the spine,
the ghosts of vanished tribes and pariah peoples,
of deep-seated intolerance and gruesome slaughter,
leaving a trail of bone and ashes
for the chroniclers of human malice to record.

We can debate the whys and wherefores,
disaggregate the data,
quibble about the numbers,
and still remain in awe
at what our reptilian brain,
when freed of all compunction and restraint,
has wrought.

And if we turn to the gods for solace,
we will find little consolation
as they battle amongst themselves,
hurling anathemas each against the other,
until the vaults of heaven itself
come crashing down.


Your clarity, William, made me shiver. And sensible judges. Who would have thought?

I would say to anyone who thinks forced assimilation is the same as physical annihilation: pick any recognized genocide or mass murder. Imagine if Jewish victims of the Holocaust had been assimilated or expelled or prevented from living their lives as Jews. Imagine if the Ukrainian peasants starved to death by Russian Communists had been expelled or forcibly assimilated into the working class and all their ploughshares beaten into swords or looms. Imagine if the Tutsi had been expelled or assimilated. Children would play and go to school. Grandparents would hug their grandchildren. Perhaps the Jews and Ukrainian peasants and Tutsi would have disappeared as distinct groups, as has happened to tens of thousands of tribes and nations and peasants and linguistic groups since the beginning of humanity.

Do we really want the same word – the same law – for physical annihilation and forced assimilation or exile?

I have virtually nothing left of my parents’ culture. No Polish or Yiddish. No religion. Different values. All I have is lox and bagels. Am I to regard myself as dead?

Twenty years ago, I found myself on the mailing list of Lubavitcher ultra-Orthodox Jews. A large envelope arrived; on the outside a headline screamed, “A Second Holocaust Worse Than The First.” What was going on!? I opened the letter. It was “the Holocaust of intermarriage.” That’s what happens when you take inappropriate metaphor for reality.

I hope that – rather than water down the definition of genocide to include “cultural genocide” (itself an unfortunate term as it reduces -cide to metaphor) – the UN and its institutions change the definition and explanation of genocide to match what they’re actually doing.

February 21

I am definitely on the side of reserving the (loaded) word genocide for the willful mass killing of a people, which is not the same thing as forced assimilation (also not pretty). A useful way, in my mind, of understanding the distinction is the appropriate punishment. Both are criminal and deserve to be prosecuted, but the first can warrant the death penalty (i.e., Nuremberg), while the second certainly cannot.

As an aside, I have always been wary of debates surrounding the meaning of words, since words are tied to language. I have five languages spinning around in my head, German my mother tongue. The German translation for genocide is Völkermord, which is much clearer. I wonder what the Chinese translation is.


¹ Olivia Stefanovich, NDP MP Calls for Hate Speech Law to Combat Residential School ‘Denialism’, CBC News, February 18, 2023.

² United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect, The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948), p. 4.

³ Stefanovich, “NDP MP Calls for Hate Speech Law.”

⁴ Michael A. McDonnell and A. Dirk Moses, Raphael Lemkin as Historian of Genocide in the Americas, Journal of Genocide Research, Vol. 7, No. 4 (December 2005), p. 502.

⁵ Tomson Highway, Permanent Astonishment: Growing Up Cree in the Land of Snow and Sky (Toronto: Penguin Random House, 2022).

⁶ William Schabas is Professor of International Law at Middlesex University in London, England, and an internationally respected expert on human rights law and genocide