In the decades after the first contact with Indigenous peoples, many history books told a story of friendly conquest, neglecting to broach the uncomfortable truths of massacres and cultural destruction that allowed Europeans to establish colonies in almost all corners of the globe.
It was only in the latter part of the 20th century that many non-indigenous academics, governments, and invested citizens sought to work alongside Indigenous peoples to challenge the inherited stories of settlement.
Last month, Canada became the latest country to admit to “race-based genocide” against its Indigenous peoples.
The acknowledgement was made in a wide-ranging report of a three-year national inquiry into more than 4,000 missing and murdered Canadian Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA (two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex and asexual people), otherwise known as the MMIWG report.
Two-spirit is a term that describes Canadian Indigenous people who “assume cross- or multiple-gender roles, attributes, dress and attitudes for personal, spiritual, cultural, ceremonial or social reasons“.
In a supplementary report explaining its rationale for the genocide ruling, MMIWG commissioners noted Canada had “displayed a continuous policy … to destroy Indigenous peoples physically, biologically, and as social units”.
Experts say Canada’s decision is significant and may reverberate across the Commonwealth’s settler-colonial states, including Australia and New Zealand, where Indigenous peoples are still subject to considerable socio-economic disadvantages when compared to non-Indigenous peers.
The theme for this week’s NAIDOC celebrations, ‘Voice, Treaty, Truth’ is also a reminder of the fact that Australia is the only Commonwealth country to not have a formal treaty with its Indigenous peoples, though the Northern Territory and Victoriaare pursuing regional treaties.
While the concrete outcomes of Canada’s report are yet to be seen, it presents governments of all stripes — including Australia’s — with a great body of evidence showing the impacts of colonisation on Indigenous peoples and could set a new precedent for how Indigenous communities in the Commonwealth could pursue truth and justice at home.
Genocide includes ‘lethal and non-lethal acts’
The United Nations Genocide Convention defines the crime as any “committed intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”, through killing, grievous bodily harm, the manipulation of the group’s living conditions, restrictions on births, or the forcible transfer of children from one group to another.
But the Canadian report noted that the current definition fails “to incorporate Indigenous perspectives” and that genocide includes both “lethal and non-lethal acts”.
In Australia, the 20th century brought with it the suffering of the Stolen Generations, where Indigenous children were taken from their parents and raised in state-run institutions or Mission Schools, while Canada had the Sixties Scoop, which saw First Nations, Inuit and Métis children forcibly taken from their homes and adopted into non-Indigenous homes.
Kutcha Edwards, a Mutti Mutti musician and host of 3CR Radio’s Beyond the Bars, told the ABC that he became a child of the Stolen Generations simply because he was “born black in this country”.
“The irony is that I was not born a citizen of this place,” he said.
“In 1967, the magic wand [of citizenship] was then bestowed upon Aboriginal people to make us constituents of the Crown — we were sovereign people prior to that.
“Because of this magic wand, I was forcibly taken from my mother and father and taken to a children’s home in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs.”
‘Genocide in Australia is ongoing’
Jill Gallagher AO, a Gunditjmara woman from western Victoria and the Victorian Treaty Advancement Commissioner, told the ABC genocide against Indigenous Australians had cast a long shadow over her own family.
“We’ve been looking at a facility to look after my 93-year-old mother and she lived through the Mission School Era,” she said.
“She said to me, ‘Jill, don’t tell them that I’m Aboriginal’.”
Ms Gallagher added that the disparity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in the rates of homelessness, unemployment, children in out-of-home care, and the ability to practise their culture, even today, exemplified indirect genocide.
The latest Australian data on out-of-home care showed that Indigenous children in 2017 were 10 times more likely to be taken away from their families than non-Indigenous children, prompting Australia’s first Aboriginal children’s commissioner, Andrew Jackomos, to call the situation a “national disaster”.
Jack Latimore, a Birpai writer and editor for National Indigenous Television (NITV) News, told the ABC that many people with power in Australia still failed to see the indirect forms of genocide.
“Academics of a certain age and socio-economic bracket do not have a conception of genocide being a nuanced thing — it’s very much a body count,” Mr Latimore said.
“Genocide or cultural genocide in Australia is ongoing and it’s part of the colonial project.”
Will Canada’s report prompt bids for justice abroad?
Jennifer Balint, an associate professor specialising in genocide at the University of Melbourne, told the ABC that obtaining justice for past or continuing genocide in any legal system was “extremely exhausting with very limited success”.
She said prosecuting charges of genocide involved proving “bad intent” — as in the case of Rwanda, and Jews during World War II — whereas history had shown that genocide also happened under “good intent” such as colonial policies of cultural assimilation.
In the Commonwealth, there has only been one instance where justice has been delivered to victims of colonial violence — in 2012, surviving Kenyan torture victims took on the British Government and won compensation.
Both Australia and Canada are in breach of a number of domestic and international human rights statues and agreements, including the Commonwealth Charter, where member states must ensure “equality and respect for the protection and promotion of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights” of all citizens.
When asked by the ABC if Canada’s report would prompt justice claims within the Commonwealth, Secretary-General Patricia Scotland said all Commonwealth members were “encouraged to take practical action” regarding the “promotion and protection of the human rights of Indigenous peoples”.
While there is no reference to colonisation or decolonisation in the Commonwealth Charter, the United Nations has pressed member states to continue decolonisation efforts — a call first made in 1960.
Within international law, Ms Balint explained that the MMIWG report’s findings may provide a framework for similar initiatives, as they document the “testimonies of what the destruction was”.
“Being attentive to different ways in which individuals and communities are destroyed — and how they understand that destruction — that’s what makes this report so important,” she said.
But for First Nations peoples looking at the Canadian decision from abroad, such as Mutti Mutti musician Mr Edwards, the move illustrates just how much catch-up other Commonwealth countries still have to do.
“When a government acknowledges that they have practised cultural genocide, you have to ask yourself, why there, and not here?”
The spokesperson for the chief commissioner of the MMIWG report, Marion Buller, said Ms Buller was not able to comment as the commission’s office was dissolved days after the ABC’s request.
The Australian Attorney-General did not respond to the ABC’s requests by deadline.