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The ongoing legacies of Canadian genocide

Canadian PoliticsIndigenous Politics

A billboard along Highway 16. The stretch of road is known as the Highway of Tears because dozens of women, mostly Indigenous, have been murdered or have disappeared in the area. Photo by Izithombe/Flickr.

The question of whether the horrors committed upon Indigenous peoples by colonial and then Canadian officials can be called genocide often attracts a great deal of controversy. Most Canadians cling to the notion that genocide means something that happens to other people, in other, far away countries. They misunderstand genocide to have occurred only when millions of people belonging to a specific ethnic group are murdered in a short space of time — as in the case of the Holocaust. It is far more difficult to accept that one’s own ancestors participated in the genocide of Indigenous peoples right here at home. But make no mistake, what happened in Canada fits every category of genocide. Today, modern policies of racism pick up where genocidal policies left off—and it’s killing our people.

Genocidal acts around the world have been responsible for the deaths of millions. These are different from the deaths caused by wars because of the targeted nature of the killing. People are singled out for death or abusive treatment because they belong to a specific national, ethnic, racial or religious group. There is no numerical threshold that must be reached to “qualify” as genocide, nor must the entire group be targeted. Millions of Jewish people were targeted and murdered in 1940s during the Second World War by Nazi Germany. The Rwandan genocide resulted in the brutal deaths of an estimated 800,000 people in 1994. A year later, the Srebrenica genocide resulted in the murder of approximately 8,000 men and women. What is common in all three examples is the attempt to destroy (in whole or in part) the specific groups.

After the mass murders of Jewish people during the war, the United Nations passed the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948. Canada signed on to the Convention in 1949 and formally ratified it in 1952. Article II defines genocide as the intention to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial group, by the following means killing, bodily or mental harm, physical destruction, preventing births or forced transfer of children out of the group.

It doesn’t matter whether the people committing genocidal acts were following constitutional rules, public officials or private individuals. They can still be convicted of genocide whether they committed or attempted to commit the acts, conspired with or incited others to do so, or were merely complicit in genocide. Where the greatest controversy seems to lie is in the necessity to prove intention. Many experts argue that the proof of genocide is in the result, not the intention. With regards to proof, the genocide of Indigenous peoples in North America is one of the longest lasting and most devastating genocidal acts in human history. Yet, even the Canadian Museum for Human Rights refuses to recognize it.

A short history of the “Indian problem”

Throughout Canada’s history, the policy objective has always been to eliminate the “Indian problem,” which included policies that killed Indian children. Even if one could believe former Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan’s claim that what happened in residential schools was simply a well-intended education policy gone wrong, the department’s response to the many deaths of Indigenous children in those schools paints a far more sinister picture. As Duncan Campbell Scott, a deputy superintendent of the Department of Indian Affairs, wrote in 1918:

Indian children … die at a much higher rate (in residential schools) than in their villages. But this alone does not justify a change in the policy of this Department, which is geared towards a final solution of our Indian problem.

The abuse, neglect, torture, medical experimentation, rapes, beatings and murders in residential schools speak of something far more sinister than an education system designed to assimilate Indians. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) explained that Canada’s Indian policy was designed to eliminate Indigenous peoples as “distinct legal, social, cultural, religious and racial entities.” After years of extensive research and interviews with residential school survivors, the TRC concluded that Canada had, in fact, engaged in cultural, physical and biological genocide against Indigenous peoples. Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin of the Supreme Court of Canada (one of the most conservative institutions in this country) called residential schools a form of “cultural genocide” and one of the worst stains on Canada’s human rights record. Even former Prime Minister Paul Martin called residential schools a form of cultural genocide, but this is not the end of the debate.

Canada’s own final solution

Most Canadians don’t know about the politics behind the international movement to outlaw genocide or the actions taken by Canada to prevent Indigenous peoples from ever bringing a claim of genocide against Canada. “Cultural genocide” was specifically left out of the Convention due to the vigorous opposition of Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom. Canada also refused to implement the Convention into domestic law through legislation, as was expected by all parties. Some experts argue that Canada’s attempt to circumvent international law by keeping it outside of domestic law is eerily similar to Nazi leadership’s arguments that Germany never accepted international law in German law. Even the act of making Indigenous peoples “citizens” has been described as an attempt to prevent them from bringing a claim of genocide against Canada as identifiable “groups.”

Classroom in residential school. Date unknown.

The totality of colonial and Canadian laws and policies has resulted in the deaths of as many as two million Indigenous peoples. Yet, in 2009, then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper told the world that there is “no history of colonialism” in Canada. When such high ranking officials offer nothing but complete denial of the collective suffering of Indigenous peoples at the hands of both colonial and Canadian governments, it doesn’t offer much hope for change.

It’s time that all Canadians knew the facts—and the fact is that Canada has committed genocidal acts against Indigenous peoples in all categories:

    1. Killing of members of the group
  • scalping bounties paid for each Mi’kmaw man, woman and child;
  • smallpox blankets provided to Indigenous peoples to spread lethal diseases;
  • deliberately infecting Indigenous children with infectious diseases in residential schools;
  • 2. Serious bodily and mental harm
  • rape, sodomy, torture, solitary confinement, electric chairs, assaults on Indigenous children in residential schools;
  • removal of thousands of children from Indigenous families into white families;
  • forced sterilization of Indigenous women and girls so they could not bear children;
  • 3. Inflicting conditions of life meant to bring about physical destruction
  • starvation of children in residential schools that led to their deaths;
  • the beating, torture and abuse of children which led to their deaths;
  • failure to provide health care to Indigenous peoples legally trapped on reserves or in residential schools;
  • 4. Imposing measures to prevent births
  • forced sterilization of Indigenous women and girls;
  • forced abortions of Indigenous girls in residential schools;
  • 5. Forced transfer of children from one group to another
  • theft of Indigenous children from families into residential schools, some never seen alive again;
  • theft of thousands of Indigenous children to be adopted into white families.

The current conjuncture

So why is it so important to understand the history of genocide in Canada? Because it’s not history. Today’s racist government laws, policies and actions have proven to be just as deadly for Indigenous peoples as the genocidal acts of the past. What used to be the theft of children into residential schools is now the theft of children into provincial foster care. What used to be scalping bounties are now Starlight tours (deaths in police custody). There is no way for Indigenous peoples to “get over” the past so long as modern policies are based on the same racist underpinnings and have the same destructive results. Racism for Indigenous peoples in Canada is not just about enduring stereotypical insults and name-calling, being turned away for employment, or being vilified in the media by government officials—racism is killing our people.

A recent Statistics Canada report showed that First Nations adults die from avoidable causes at more than twice the national average. They defined the term “avoidable” as implicating public health policies and the provision of timely and adequate healthcare. Examples include Brody Meekis, who died of treatable strep throat, or Brian Sinclair, a disabled man, who waited 34 hours in emergency until he died of a treatable bladder infection. Other socioeconomic variables such as education were, not surprisingly, found to have a major impact on reducing avoidable deaths. This report supports earlier studies which have linked the chronic underfunding of essential human services like water, sanitation, housing, education and health care with the premature deaths (from seven to 20 years earlier) of First Nations members compared to Canadians. We know from numerous Auditor General of Canada reports that the primary difference between First Nation social programs and those in the rest of Canada is discriminatory underfunding.

Even federal government reports admit that the primary reason for the 30,000 to 40,000 Indigenous kids in care is the underfunding of child and family services in First Nations. The over representation of Indigenous peoples in prisons has also been called a national emergency and is directly tied to what the Office of Correctional Investigator has called “discriminatory laws and policies.”

Even the Supreme Court of Canada has intervened on the over-imprisonment of Indigenous peoples, but imprisonment continues to increase. Federal and provincial governments have refused to acknowledge that we have a real racism problem in Canada despite pleas from First Nations and many interventions from the UN. Even the historic Idle No More movement was not enough to make government officials take any action—except to put us all under surveillance and label us as terrorists. Lack of concern for the lives of Indigenous peoples is a current reality. When former Prime Minister Harper was confronted by growing public concern, demands by First Nations for an inquiry and several United Nation’s reports condemning Canada’s refusal to act on murdered and missing Indigenous women, his response was “it’s not high on our radar to be honest.”

Canada has long known what the problem is, but has failed to take action. The newly elected Liberal government has promised a new way forward with Indigenous peoples, which includes a nation-to-nation relationship and the implementation of the UN’s Declarations on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). It has also promised to implement the TRC recommendations, which include a national inquiry on murdered and missing Indigenous women. While we welcome these encouraging promises, we cannot forget that every successive government since contact has had a hand in the genocide of Indigenous peoples. We’ve heard many lofty promises before.

Montreal march for Indigenous rights, October 2015. Posted on; Cristian Mijea.

What’s to be done?

We cannot sit back and wait to see whether Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will make good on his promises. We have to set the agenda and keep pressure on the government to take action. The lives of Indigenous peoples depend on it. We need an emergency action plan to address the devastating outcomes of genocidal policies including safety, health, education, housing, water, food, and child and family. These essential human services must be funded on a needs-based formula, not on provincial comparisons. Trying to address the “gap” is folly given the cumulative destructive nature of chronic underfunding and our unique rights.

However, nothing will change unless Canada addresses the root causes of our poverty and recognizes our ownership and jurisdiction over our lands and peoples. If we are ever going to get to a place where Indigenous peoples can feel safe and secure in their own territories, we have to move beyond shock, denial and debate over the term “genocide” and address the lethal origins of these modern racist policies. A full-scale, comprehensive review of all federal and provincial laws and policies is needed to ensure compliance with human rights laws, constitutionally protected Aboriginal and treaty rights, and international laws like UNDRIP. There is room enough for all of us to live in Canada, share the wealth and responsibility for protecting the lands and waters which sustain us, and make a good life for our families, communities and Nations. We have the collective power to end genocide against Indigenous peoples and restore justice in Canada — our very lives depend on it.

Pam Palmater is a Mi’kmaw citizen and member of the Eel River Bar First Nation in northern New Brunswick. She has been a practicing lawyer for 18 years and is currently an Associate Professor and the Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University.

This article appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of Canadian Dimension (Racism).


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