Healing and Awareness: What Do Genocide Survivors Have in Common?

By Ana Sofia Hibon and Kim Boucher Morin
Social Connectedness Fellows 2017

How do people, communities, or nations move forward and heal in the aftermath of genocide? On Tuesday, April 3rd, a group of Rwandan undergraduate students convened a panel discussion at McGill University called Healing and Awareness: What do genocide survivors have in common? The event was hosted on the eve of the 24th annual commemoration of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi and in the context of Genocide Remembrance, Condemnation, and Prevention Month.

The panel, organized with the support of TakingITGlobal, brought together voices from different Canadian communities of genocide survivors. They discussed the causes and precursors of genocide, as well as the different pathways to intergenerational healing, collective reconciliation, and effective genocide prevention. The panelists included:

  • Viken L. Attarian: Poet, Essayist, and former President of Quebec’s Policy Commission of the Liberal Party of Canada (2012-16)
  • Briar Perrier: Activist, Dancer, and Youth Helper at the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto
  • Denyse Umutoni: Child Protection Social Worker

As a 3rd generation survivor of the Armenian Genocide, Viken L. Attarian, began by clarifying the meaning of the term genocide. Drawing from the work of experts in international law, sociology, and politics, he advised the audience to be very clear regarding the legal dimensions of genocide. This, he said, can improve how genocide is covered by the media and help raise awareness, which as a result, can weaken denialist campaigns.

Mr. Attarian also spoke about the struggles for the recognition of genocide and the importance of preservation of memory in Canadian communities of survivors. He observed that these struggles can create collective identities of victimhood, which in turn affect how individuals heal and perceive themselves. Genocide recognition, he remarked, does not necessarily begin at the state level; it starts with individuals, followed by communities and states, and then ideally there is acknowledgement by the perpetrators.

Recognizing that there is not one road to healing, reconciliation, or prevention, Mr. Attarian urged the audience to “stare evil down” as a collective group of citizens and build bridges among communities of genocide survivors and allies.

To Briar Perrier, one bridge to healing intergenerational trauma lies in the reclaiming of traditional teachings in which first generation genocide survivors were unable to partake. This has been an important part of her individual healing journey as the daughter of a residential school survivor and an Ojibwe person in Canada. She also highlighted the importance of youth engagement and elder communication.

However, she warned that reconciliation cannot happen if genocide and its legacies are not actively acknowledged by people in and out of survivor communities. She added that obstructing land recognition and Indigenous sovereignty fuels tensions and lateral violence within First Nations communities, sustains their lack of access to services, and perpetuates the perception of Indigenous people as “obstacles” to “development”.

 Denyse Umutoni, who survived the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi of Rwanda, shared her struggle to forgive genocidaires, an ongoing effort she is still navigating. Since July 1994, she has asked over and over: “How can one forgive and move forward when often no one has even asked for forgiveness?” She reminded the audience that in Rwanda, perpetrators and survivors of the Genocide frequently continue living door to door.

When addressing genocide prevention, she noted that people still commit genocide because they can get away with it. Genocide needs to “stop working” and perpetrators must stop reaping its benefits. As a mother, a survivor, and a person committed to genocide prevention, Denyse has put a lot of thought into how to educate upcoming generations about past genocides without transmitting hate. In her experience, the way to healing has been through respect of the humanity of the perpetrators and the acknowledgement of the “other” parts of them.

The conversation also included audience members, who provided reactions to the thoughtful observations offered by the panelists. One attendee inquired about the boundaries faced by Indigenous peoples in Canada. She shared her own experience having immigrated to Canada after the Armenian genocide as a point of comparison and questioned the willingness of certain local communities to help themselves, as well as their reliance on external assistance.

This interaction highlighted a problematic yet popular attitude towards Indigenous communities in Canada: a lack of understanding of historical legacies and the barriers that still prevail. Briar Perrier and attendee Cindy Blackstock, Executive Director of the First Nations Child & Family Caring Society of Canada, explained the significant disadvantages faced by First Nations peoples in tackling community-specific issues, and emphasized the importance of fostering connections and solidarity between newcomer and Indigenous communities in order to overcome adversity. As panelist Briar Perrier eloquently remarked, it serves no one “to play oppression Olympics.” Briar added, “These are questions that people have, and that they are often not willing to ask publicly, so it is important to address them and to use the opportunity as a teaching moment.”

Collective healing and reconciliation require mutual understanding and respect. Events such as this one provide spaces for conversations that allow members of the audience to hear stories they may not otherwise hear. As such, attendees can uncover commonalities between individual experiences of struggle and trauma in order to create connections and nurture healing.