We in the west don’t like to think about it, but the facts are stark. As Tzvetan Todorov said about the founding of New Spain and Portuguese Brazil “the sixteenth century perpetuated the greatest genocide in human history.” (emphasis added) We are the products of that genocide. We are the beneficiaries of that genocide! We must never forget that awful, uncomfortable fact, no matter what we might like to do. Marks Crocker was even more extreme in his description of this fact when he said,
“…when viewed as a single process, the European consumption of tribal society could be said to represent the, greatest, most persistent act of human destruction ever recorded.”
Admittedly, it is not a simple task to count the number of dead caused by European expansionism. Estimates of deaths of Indigenous peoples vary widely. Yet one thing is clear. Vast numbers of Indigenous peoples did not survive European arrivals. Russell Thornton is a serious scholar who has given a lot of attention to this issue He concluded that the Aboriginal population in the Americas had declined by 1900 to about 6% of its size of about 72 million when Europeans first made contact with the peoples of the western hemisphere. He blamed diseases as the primary cause, but warfare and genocide added to the terrible toll.
“Holocaust” is really an appropriate word. It’s an ugly word but it’s the right word. This becomes even clearer, when one learns that this was accompanied by destruction of more than 75% of the Aboriginal languages and dialects spoken in the Americas when Europeans arrived. As we know now, destruction of language means the destruction of a culture, and with that destruction a people is often rendered limp—ready to roll over and die. It must be remembered that this trend has not stopped. In 2000 the pace of language destructions has continued unabated. In fact it has accelerated worldwide. We will all suffer this loss. As Canadian scholar, Anthony Hall said, “The disappearance of so many linguistic windows of human understanding is robbing posterity of vital media of thought and articulation to convey, perpetuate, and augment our inherited cultural richness.”
We in the west are now quick to condemn genocides in Germany, Rwanda, Serbia, Kosovo, Cambodia, and other places. We should not forget what happened in our homeland. These were war crimes, ethnic cleansings, and crimes against humanity that have rarely been acknowledged, and have never been punished or brought to justice.
Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission danced around the issue of genocide. It called the results of the Residential schools “Cultural genocide”. I find this concept disconcerting. What is cultural genocide as opposed to genocide?
At first, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg did the same thing. It used the similar expression “cultural genocide” as well. I always felt that it used this expression rather than the harsher expression “genocide” because it did not want to offend its reluctant sponsor, the Conservative federal government of Canada led at the time by Stephen Harper. Later, after that government was replaced by the Liberal government led by Justin Trudeau, it referred to it as “genocide.” I believe that this is now its official position.
Anthony Hall does not shrink from describing the actions of European conquerors as genocide. He described it this way,
“In North America in particular the ethnic cleansing of Indigenous peoples has been so systematic, longstanding, and pervasive that it has been rendered all but invisible, except to the victims or their survivors and to those with the honesty and fortitude to face the stark evidence of the historical record. One marker of the extent and terrible effectiveness of this genocidal assault is Thornton’s estimate that, between 1492 and 1900, the number of Indians and Inuit in the region covered by Canada and the United States dropped from around 7 million to fewer than 400,000.”
We, who now live in North America, are the beneficiaries of that genocide. How comfortable are we about that? Most of us never admit it. Most of us never even think about it. Colonization was made possible by genocide. That colonization continues to this day. Our society is based on that.