August 19, 2020

Sterling Prize 2020: How Canada changed the definition of genocide while harming Indigenous Peoples

When Raphael Lemkin first drafted genocide as a crime, cultural erasure was a key component. Yet, when the United Nations adopted the Genocide Convention in 1948, only physical and biological definitions of genocide were included—cultural definitions were absent.

Canada played a significant part in changing the definition of genocide in discussions leading to the adoption of the Genocide Convention—all while knowingly committing genocide against Indigenous Peoples.

“It’s there in black and white that Canada evaded the concept of cultural genocide,” says Tamara Starblanket, Dean of Academics at Native Education College and a Cree woman from Ahtahkakoop First Nation in Treaty Six.

Starblanket is the recipient of the 2020 Nora and Ted Sterling Prize in Support of Controversy for her book Suffer the Little Children: Genocide, Indigenous Nations and the Canadian State. Starblanket’s book provides an exacting international legal analysis of genocide and makes comprehensible its many human and moral dimensions.

“That Canada could be viewed as having knowingly instituted policies and laws in relation to Indigenous Nations which can be termed genocidal and which have led to much irrecoverable destruction and loss is a hard reality for Canadians to stomach,” says Starblanket. “It is fitting that a fully comprehensive dialogue on that history and present be opened with due recognition of its controversiality.”

Starblanket will receive the Sterling Prize at an award ceremony on Thursday, Oct. 29 at the Native Education College in Vancouver. Following the ceremony, Starblanket will give a presentation on Canada’s role in changing the definition of genocide and the legal ramifications internationally and domestically. The lecture will be open to the public and free with registration.

The Sterling Prize was first awarded in 1993 and remains committed to recognizing work that provokes and contributes to the understanding of controversy, while presenting new ways of looking at the world and challenging complacency. The prize recognizes work across disciplines and departments and is awarded annually by the Sterling Prize committee.