Open letter to the Council of the Canadian Historical Association and the Canadian Public

To the Council of the Canadian Historical Association, the Canadian Public, and the Signatories of the “Open Letter to the Council of the Canadian Historical Association and the Canadian Public [9 August 2020].

The undersigned applaud the CHA for their “Canada Day Statement” and refute the arguments used by the signatories of the “Open Letter” in the 9 August 2021 issue of The Dorchester Review to denounce it.

The CHA Statement asserts that use of the term genocide is warranted given “the long history of violence and dispossession Indigenous peoples experienced in what is today Canada.” Following the United Nations definition of genocide, the statement further asserts, “Taking the long view of European colonial occupation and Indigenous dispossession, we maintain that genocidal intent has been amply established in the historical scholarship and by the words of policy makers at the time.”

The fifty-three historians who signed the “Open Letter” took umbrage with the CHA Statement, charging that “in making an announcement in support of a particular interpretation of history, and in insisting that there is only one valid interpretation, the CHA’s current leadership has fundamentally broken the norms and expectations of professional scholarship.”

We refute the arguments of the “Open Letter” on a number of grounds.

First, while a few historians of Indigenous-settler relations reject the term genocide to describe colonial intent and actions against Indigenous peoples, some of the research and archival sources they rely on provide the evidence that meets the definition of genocide. It is also significant that the vast majority of the “Open Letter” signatories are not historians of 19th and early 20th century Indigenous policies and experiences.

Second, historians gather facts from primary sources and shape them in a way they want their audience to understand and make sense of them. This process by which historians make sense of the past is interpretation and those interpretations are informed by the present. Recent interpretations of Canadian history, put forth by several scholars who are signatories to the Open Letter, assert that the goal of the federal government’s Indigenous policy was to make Indigenous people disappear administratively, culturally, and physically: to be no more. This is genocide.

The CHA council’s statement is grounded in that recent historic scholarship and is shaped by the time we live in, where the truths about residential schools, and other genocidal policies and practices impacting Indigenous child welfare and health, were designed specifically to eradicate First Nations, Metis, and Inuit people and destroy their Nations. This understanding is being informed by new facts and information revealed because of new archival and oral history collections. Consequently, different interpretations have emerged.  As the CHA statement made clear, “genocidal intent has been amply established in the historical scholarship…” and that “There is a broad consensus on this point among historical experts” and that “The existing historical scholarship, based on extensive research into governmental archives, missionary records, archaeological studies, and written and oral testimony of Survivors of residential schools, the 60s Scoop, and families of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls, make this conclusion abundantly clear.” The statement explicitly puts forth the position most historians of Indigenous-settler history have argued for the last 30 years.   

Third, the Open Letter’s criticism that the CHA Statement is unprofessional and that the CHA itself is “acting as an activist organizations” is erroneous and an anti-intellectual polemic. Learned Societies around the world make public statements on relevant issues—this is not unprofessional but speaks to the role that such societies can (and should) play in asking citizens to reflect on and understand the world around them. Such statements point to the wider public that disciplines like history have a role to play in their lives and are not out of touch with the world or current events. An activist is someone who campaigns to help make political and social change, and the CHA, along with many other academic associations, committed itself to advocating for and creating change when they took up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action, as did the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences. Activism is not incompatible with academia or intellectual rigour.

Fourth, the undersigned assert, in no uncertain terms, that this is not merely an interpretive debate limited to the ivory tower. It has very real and significant current implications for our society.  If this is a question of “ethics and values” as the open letter purports, we assert that taking up space to challenge the use of the word genocide while Indigenous communities across the country are raw and grieving, is another example of the blind, callous and unethical conduct that has characterized so much of the research “on” Indigenous peoples within Canada. This is not a time to pull out the “both sides” argument that others have used to hold on to the status quo and challenge important work on social and racial justice. We assert that it is time to take heart, to show respect, and to listen to the long ignored and often discredited truths and histories of Indigenous Nations.  

Shekon Neechie is interested in how other Indigenous scholars are understanding this debate reignited by the recent Open Letter in the Dorchester Review which we feel is an either/or position between activism or professionalism or what constitutes “authentic scholarly history.” Please send submissions to shekon.neechie@gmail.com

Shekon Neechie Board

Brenda Macdougall, PhD. University Research Chair in Metis Family and Community Traditions, Professor, University of Ottawa

Mary Jane McCallum, PhD. Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Peoples, History, and Archives, Professor, University of Winnipeg

Kim Anderson, PhD. Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Relationships, Associate Professor, The University of Guelph

Alan Ojiig Corbiere, PhD. Canada Research Chair in Indigenous History in North America, Assistant Professor, York University

Susan Hill, PhD. Director of the Centre for Indigenous Studies, Associate Professor, University of Toronto

Winona Wheeler, PhD. Associate Professor, University of Saskatchewan

Robert Alexander Innes, PhD. Associate Professor, McMaster University

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