Today, after more than five years of fact-finding, interviewing, and researching, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released a summary its long-anticipated report on Canada’s residential schools system. The report’s headline-grabbing conclusion is that the residential schools were a key component in a deliberate program of cultural genocide against Canada’s Aboriginal peoples.
For a long time now, there’s been a lot of contention about the use of the word “genocide” to describe the colonial government’s treatment of this nation’s indigenous peoples. And for the life of me, I can’t see why. Let’s look at the internationally accepted definition of “cultural genocide”, as explained in this excellent summary of the report’s release from the Aboriginal People’s Television Network:
The TRC’s report said cultural genocide is defined as the “destruction of those structures and practices that allow the group to continue as a group.”
States that engage in cultural genocide aim to destroy political and social institutions by seizing land, persecuting spiritual leaders, banning languages, outlawing cultural practices, restricting movement and disrupting families so cultural values can’t be passed on to successive generations, said the report.
“In its dealing with Aboriginal people, Canada did all these things,” said the report…
“The intent of the government’s policy…was to assimilate Aboriginal people into broader Canadian society,” said the report. “At the end of this process, Aboriginal people were expected to have ceased to exist as a distinct people with their own governments, cultures and identities.”
Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald told the House of Commons in 1883 that residential schools would be one of the main weapons used to eliminate the “savage” before it grew to become incorrigible.
“When the school is on the reserve the child lives with its parents, who are savages, he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write his habits and training and mode of thought are Indian,” said Macdonald, in a passage quoted by the report. “He is simply a savage that can read and write.”
(Really, the whole article is a powerful and insightful read, and I strongly encourage you to go read it right now. I’ll wait here.)
That there’s even any debate about whether or not Canada’s treatment of this land’s Aboriginal peoples constituted genocide speaks to how ill-informed people are on this subject. When you consider that:
- The Nazi German government took inspiration from the American and Canadian system of Native reservations, and South Africa’s apartheid government designed their Bantustan system with Canada’s Indian Act and reservation system in mind;
- Sir John A.’s government pursued a deliberate strategy of starving indigenous people across the prairies to make room for European settlers and his legacy-building railway;
- The Indian Act, since the 1870s, has regulated every aspect of indigenous life, including who was and was not a “status” Aboriginal person, and maintained a system of reserves on undesirable patches of land (explained in song here);
- Students in residential schools were more likely to die than Canadian soldiers serving World War II;
- Aboriginal children were deprived of essential nutrients for the purposes of medical experimentation;
- The majority of this nation’s indigenous languages are endangered;
- Indigenous women make up over one-third of the female prison population and account for 16% of female homicides and over 11% of missing women, despite making up about 4% of Canada’s female population;
- Roughly half of Aboriginal children live in poverty, a rate more than triple that of the non-Aboriginal population;
it’s hard not to conclude that there’s been a deliberate policy to destroy indigenous culture and communities.
And it’s easy to forget, because racism quickly takes on a life of its own, but policies like this aren’t initiated purely out of hatred.
The TRC’s report nailed this aspect of the genocide question, the issue of why this happened:
“These measures were part of a coherent policy to eliminate Aboriginal people as distinct peoples and to assimilate them into the Canadian mainstream against their will,” says the 381-page summary of its final report released Tuesday in Ottawa.
“The Canadian government pursued this policy of cultural genocide because it wished to divest itself of its legal and financial obligations to Aboriginal people and gain control over their land and resources,” says the report.
This was not brutality for the sake of brutality, nor was this a well-meaning but ignorant attempt to bring what was perceived to be civilization to people who were perceived to be savages. It was a policy put in place deliberately, for the purpose of taking land and resources controlled by Aboriginal peoples.
It was genocide for profit.
And this is a policy which continues right up to this day, albeit through different methods.
We can see the policy of land and resource theft in the government’s unconscionable (and unconstitutional) attempts to steamroll Aboriginal opposition to its pipeline projects like Northern Gateway, and the cold hand of genocide in the government’s vigorous persecution of a doctor who had the temerity to point out the link between the tar sands and the high prevalence of rare cancers among indigenous people in northern Alberta.
We can see genocide in the miserable frozen poverty of Attawapiskat, located just down the road from an extremely lucrative De Beers diamond mine, or in the grossly disproportionate number of Aboriginal children placed in foster care by CAS, a practice that many charge is repeating the residential school tragedy for a new generation.
Colonization is not a historical phenomenon. It is an ongoing process. And it is beholden on those who benefit from it to repudiate it, to challenge it, to work to bring about its downfall.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has brought a lot of truth to light, but the “reconciliation” aspect has yet to begin. TRC chair Justice Murray Sinclair put it well:
”Words are not enough,” Sinclair said, to address the “cultural genocide” of residential schools on aboriginal communities.
“Reconciliation is not an aboriginal problem — it is a Canadian problem. It involves all of us.”