On Comparing Genocides

Rhoda E. Howard-Hassmann, Canada Research Chair in International Human Rights, at Wilfrid Laurier University, contributes the following to our discussion of The Canadian Museum of Human Rights:

In 1985 I taught my first course in comparative genocide studies in the department of sociology at McMaster University. I had heard that a film existed about the mass starvation of Ukrainians in 1932-33, so I called a local Ukrainian-Canadian community organization to ask if they knew where I could find a copy. The person who answered the phone was astounded that someone who was not Ukrainian herself would be interested in the Holodomor, as the Ukrainian genocide later came to be known. The community organization gave me a free copy of the film to show my students.

Anyone who studies genocide should be aware of the Holodomor, which is exemplary of one of the most common, yet understudied methods of genocide; mass starvation. Jews, as well as Ukrainians, were subjected to mass starvation during their respective genocides. Mass starvation occurred in China during the so-called “Great Leap Forward,” in Cambodia during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, and in North Korea in the mid-1990s. The citizens of Zimbabwe since 2000 have only been protected from state-induced mass starvation by the good offices of the World Food Program and other international organizations. It is not correct, therefore, to assume that the Nazi genocide of the Jews was the paradigmatic genocide. It was one horrific way, but not the only one, to murder millions of people.

Thus, if the Canadian Museum of Human Rights intends to have a permanent exhibition dedicated to genocide that occurred outside Canada, it should cover all the known major genocides, not only the genocide of the Jews. Moreover, this is a Canadian museum of human rights; thus the exhibit should focus on Canadians’ reactions, or lack thereof, to these genocides, in our immigration, refugee, aid and foreign policies. I make this statement not only in my professional capacity, but also as a Canadian whose father escaped from Nazi Germany and some of whose Jewish relatives were murdered in various cruel ways by the Nazis.

Finally, I do not know what exhibits the Canadian Museum of Human Rights intends to have on Canada’s aboriginal peoples. If the Museum intends to investigate genocide, however, then it ought to take very seriously the argument that aboriginal Canadians were victims of cultural genocide, or ethnocide. I have always included a section in my courses on comparative genocide on the genocides of indigenous people world-wide. Also, when I taught introductory sociology, I always discussed cultural genocide in my lecture on Canada’s indigenous peoples.  It is incumbent upon us as Canadians to devote special attention to the genocides of indigenous peoples in the Americas, and the cultural genocide of indigenous peoples here in our own country.  The cultural genocide of Canada’s indigenous people warrants a separate, permanent exhibit.

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