The French noun génocidaire—indicating a person who’s participated in a genocide—has no direct English equivalent. That will need to change, however, because every leader in Canada’s history has now effectively been declared a génocidaire, as have an uncountable number of cabinet ministers, government employees, religious officials, and educators. And it seems impractical for us to rely on a foreign word to denounce these criminals as we march the living specimens off to The Hague while stripping the dead of their reputations and honours.
On October 27th, a parliamentary motion demanding that the federal government “recognize what happened in Canada's Indian residential schools as genocide” passed by unanimous consent. To be clear, the resolution’s author, MP Leah Gazan, did not qualify the word “genocide” with “cultural,” as the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission had done in 2015. It’s just genocide, full stop. To such extent that this resolution is taken seriously, anyone who helped oversee, fund, or operate Canada’s residential-school program shall now be classified as a participant in genocide. And since Canada's residential schools have been operating since before Canada came into existence 155 years ago, this list would include every prime minister who served up to 1997, when the last residential school was closed—i.e., all 23 of Canada’s PMs except Paul Martin, Stephen Harper, and the incumbent, Justin Trudeau.
But even that latter trio can’t escape the génocidaire designation. Back in 2019, Trudeau confessed to a separate (and apparently “ongoing”) genocide when he acceded to conclusions presented by the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG). This means, for those keeping score, that Pierre Trudeau (1919–2000), Justin Trudeau’s prime ministerial father, is implicated in not one but two genocides, while Justin is guilty of just one. But this is not the final tally: Given Canada’s current political climate, newly discovered genocides are no doubt in the offing.
Canadians have long known that the residential-school system represents a shameful chapter in our nation’s history. The schools were designed to forcibly integrate Indigenous children into white Christian society, which meant stripping them of their native languages and customs. In some cases, teachers and other staff were uncaring or even predatory. Of the approximately 150,000 children who passed through these schools, more than 4,000 died, mostly from tuberculosis and other contagious diseases. None of these facts are much disputed in Canadian mainstream discourse, as they are well-evidenced by official documents and testimony from former students.
But the campaign to label this as genocide is not only historically novel, but also conspicuously detached from normal principles of evidence-based inquiry. In particular, it has generally remained taboo for politicians, and even journalists, to question last year’s blockbuster claim that 215 unmarked graves of allegedly murdered Indigenous students had been found near a former residential school in Kamloops, BC. As the National Post newspaper reported a year later, this narrative was based on no concrete evidence other than ground-penetrating radar (GPR), a technology that can turn up all manner of soil disturbances. (According to one researcher, what the GPR actually detected was likely “2,000 feet of trenches in a long-forgotten septic field installed in 1924.”) It is entirely possible that some bodies may lie under the soil in Kamloops. But despite the passage of almost a year and a half since news of those 215 claimed graves first broke, not a single body has been discovered.
Not that you’re supposed to say any of this in polite Canadian company. Indeed, one of Trudeau’s cabinet ministers has even suggested that speaking up about this lack of evidence comprises a form of genocide “denialism.” And a prominent journalist appeared on public television to instruct Canadians that the act of questioning such genocide narratives comprises, in and of itself, a “tool of genocide.” By this standard, I suppose that I qualify as a génocidaire—as does anyone who appreciatively shares this article on social media.
In many countries, such as Poland, Russia, and Turkey, it is considered bad manners (or even a criminal act) to speak candidly of such nations’ real historical sins. But in Canada, the officially sanctioned fictionalization of history now runs in the opposite direction—toward apocalyptic self-incrimination. Even as hundreds of thousands of immigrants and refugees flock to Canada every year, we are required to embrace the lurid conceit that our country may be described in the same moral breath as (actual) genocidal states such as Nazi Germany and 1994-era Rwanda. A group of scholars even tried to get Canada prosecuted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity (with predictable results).
It’s not every day that a country declares itself a bastion of génocidaires. And so one might think that last week’s unanimously endorsed parliamentary motion would lead every news broadcast, and remain on everyone’s lips. Instead, the news faded quickly, a symptom of what might be called Canadian genocide fatigue. Since the current round of national self-laceration began during the Canada 150 celebrations of 2017, politicians and talking heads have done such a thorough job of denouncing our country as a white supremacist dystopia that this kind of fresh rhetorical escalation no longer really registers with average Canadians. Trudeau has stood for election twice since admitting his identity as leader of a genocide state—in both cases, ironically, presenting himself as a champion of human rights and an enemy of racism. And so the whole genocide issue now has the air of dreary farce.
Nor do any of the other public officials who’ve been rending their garments on this file in recent years have any desire to follow through on the absurd implications of Gazan’s motion. To take but one example from among many: As of October 27th, the names gracing many of Canada’s biggest airports—including Trudeau International in Montreal, Macdonald-Cartier International in Ottawa, and Pearson International in Toronto—have come to comprise a litany of genocide-state leaders (specifically, Pierre Trudeau, John A. Macdonald, and Lester Pearson). Insofar as the genocide descriptor really does fit, this situation would be comparable to modern German and Italian airports being named after Hitler and Mussolini. Are all those amenities now supposed to be renamed?
In addition to Justin Trudeau, moreover, six former Canadian prime ministers are still alive. And as alluded to above, four now stand officially accused of presiding over multiple genocides. Presumably, these politicians—as well as their legions of underlings—might be prosecuted under Section 318 of Canada’s domestic criminal code, which prohibits the promotion of genocide (including through official government propaganda channels). Or, better yet, prosecutors could seek to apply the Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act, which provides that every person who commits genocide (or “is an accessory after the fact”) is liable to imprisonment for life.
I need scarcely add that none of this will happen—because the way that the word “genocide” is now used in Ottawa has no connection to the word’s true definition. A term that, just a few years ago, signalled real slaughter on the scale of millions, has been reduced to the level of Twitter hashtag—a badge that politicians brandish lazily for no other reason than to signal adherence to an approved ideological posture. Which is to say, a word without any meaning whatsoever, for if everyone is a génocidaire, then no one is.