I am moved to write this blog because of Minister [of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development] Duncan’s outrageous remarks that residential schools were NOT cultural genocide. This has led to discussions about whether or not the murder, torture and abuse of Indigenous peoples in this country “qualifies” as genocide, given the more recent, and much more distant atrocities committed in countries like Rwanda. Rwanda gained international attention because upwards of 800,000 people died in less than a year by brutal means. The Srebenica genocide resulted in the murder of approximately 8,000 Bosnian men and women in 1995. The holocaust of millions of Jewish people is likely the most famous of all.
These events all took place far away from our shores in North America and allowed Canadians and Americans to point across the sea and shake their heads in horror and disgust. North Americans have been able to rewrite their own histories so that they don’t have to face the atrocities committed here at home. They have the benefit of majority power which means that their teachers speak of peace and friendship with the Indians, their priests speak of saving Indians, and their politicians speak of things like reconciliation. Meanwhile, the horrors committed against our peoples, which resulted in the largest genocide in the planet’s history is a story that never gets told.
As a lawyer, a professor and someone who does a lot of public speaking about issues impacting our peoples, I am often faced with the question of whether genocide really happened here in North America (a place we call Turtle Island and includes Canada and the United States). When I answer unequivocally yes, the first reaction is usually, “You can’t seriously compare colonization with the vicious murders in Rwanda”? I agree — there is is no comparison. It was a different place, at a different time, with different methods and results. What I am saying is that what happened to our people on Turtle Island fits every criteria of the international definition of genocide.
In 1948, after the atrocities committed against the Jewish people in WWII, the United Nations passed the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
The Convention declared that genocide was a crime in international law regardless of whether it was committed during a time of peace or war. Any punishment is NOT limited by time or place and there is no immunity for public bodies, government officials or individuals. They defined genocide as follows:
- “The Convention defines genocide as any of a number of acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group:
- killing the members of the group;
- causing serious bodily harm or mental harm to members of the group;
- deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
- imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; and
- forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
That is not my definition — that is the definition by international law standards for which ALL nations are bound and Canada and the United States are no exceptions. Canada signed this Convention on November 28, 1949. The United States signed on December 11, 1948.Thus, in order for an act to be considered genocide, it does not require that all components be present, nor does it require that the entire group be eliminated. However, in both Canada’s case and that of the United States, ALL components of genocide are present. Specifically here in Canada:
1) killing members of the group
- the deliberate infecting of blankets with small pox and sending them to reserves;
- the enacting of scalping laws which encouraged settlers to kill and scalp Indians for a monetary reward;
- the deliberate infecting of Indigenous children with infectious diseases in residential schools which led to their deaths;
- the deliberate abuse, torture, starvation, and denial of medical care to Indigenous children forced to live at residential schools which resulted in as many as 40% dying in those schools;
- the killing of our people by police and military through starlight tours, tazering, severe beatings, and by unjustified shootings;
- the killing of our people resulted in severely reduced populations, and some Nations completely wiped out;
- in the U.S., some groups were exterminated by up to 98%;
2) causing serious bodily harm or mental harm to the members of the group;
- think of the torture and abuse inflicted on Indigenous children in residential schools like sexual abuse, rape, sodomy, solitary confinement, denial of food and medical care, and severe beatings for speaking one’s language, etc;
- imagine the mental harm to Indigenous families and communities when their children were forcibly removed from them and left to die in residential schools;
- even when residential schools were starting to close, social workers in the 1960’s onward stole children and placed them out for adoption in non-Indigenous families;
- the torture and abuse of Indigenous peoples in order to force them to sign treaties and agreements;
- the loss of language, culture, traditions, practices, way of life, beliefs, world views, customs;
- the imposed divisions in families, communities and Nations through the Indian Act;
(3) deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
- think of the deliberate and chronic underfunding of essential social services on reserve like housing, water, food, sewer and other programs fundamental to the well-being of a people like education and health;
- the theft of all the lands and resources of Indigenous peoples and their subsequent confinement to small reserves where the law prevented them from leaving and providing for their families and so were left to starve on the rations provided by Canada;
- or the relocations of Indigenous communities from resource rich areas to swamp lands where they could not provide for themselves;
- Indian Affairs who divided large nations into small communities, located them physically away from one another,
- the Indian Act led to the physical separation of Indigenous women and children from their communities through the Act’s assimilatory registration provisions;
4) imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
- the forced sterilizations of Indigenous women and men, most notably in Alberta and British Columbia;
- the Indian Act’s discriminatory registration provisions which prevent the descendants of Indigenous women who married non-Indian men to be recognized as members of their community thus keeping their births from being recognized as part of the group;
- the discriminatory INAC policy which prevents the children of unwed mothers from registering their children as Indians and part of their communities (unstated and unknown paternity);
5) forcibly transferring children of the group to another group
- the long history of residential schools which had an express stated purpose: “to KILL the Indian in the child” and to ensure that there were no more Indians in Canada;
- the 60’s scoop which saw the mass removal of Indigenous children from their homes and adopted permanently into non-Indigenous homes;
- the prevention of children from being members in their communities due to the discriminatory Indian Act registration provisions;
- the current high rate of children removed from their families which out numbers residential schools and 60’s scoop combined.
Unfortunately, I could provide many more examples, but there is no need to do so when what is listed above more than meets the definition of genocide. So, when the Minister of Indian Affairs says that residential schools were NOT a form of cultural genocide, he is not only undoing what good the public residential schools apology did, but he is denying all of the horrors committed by Canada on our peoples — in essence, he is denying our lived realities.
Watch the clips of Minister Duncan on APTN’s InFocus show that we just did on Nov.4, 2011 on the issue of assimilation and genocide in Canada:
Part 1 of APTN InFocus:
I find it hard to believe that while the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is going around Canada, that the Minister of Indian Affairs would be so disrespectful. Not only were residential schools “lethal” for some languages, cultures and family relations, it was literally “lethal” for almost half the children that attended. How much more lethal would he want it to be? 60%, 70%, 80%?
The Prime Minister should immediately remove Minister Duncan from his position. That won’t happen of course, because the Conservative government STILL has a policy objective of assimilating Indians. The Indian Act’s registration provisions are modern day evidence of that.
I invite you all to watch the documentary entitled: The Canary Effect. It is only one hour long, but is very difficult to watch. It hurts the spirit in so many ways and I imagine will be difficult for uninformed non-Indigenous people to accept. While it relates primarily to genocide against our Indigenous peoples in the United States, much of what is said applies equally in Canada.
We are in the fight of our lives and we need to turn the tide of this war around. We have to stop blaming ourselves and believing the lies that we were told. We are not inferior, we are not genetically pre-disposed to dysfunction, our men are not better than our women, and we certainly did not EVER consent to genocide against our people. All the dysfunction, addictions, ill health, suicides, male domination and violence is all the result of what Canada did to us. We are not each others’ enemies. We have to forgive ourselves for being colonized — none of that is who we really are as Indigenous peoples.
Our people are beautiful, proud, strong, and resilient. We honour our ancestors by surviving. Now we have to honour our future generations by thriving. Our children carry our ancestors in their hearts and minds. They carry the strength, honour and passion of our ancestors in their blood. Our generation must find a way, despite all the barriers in our way, to love, support and nurture our children so that we can rise up and take back our sovereignty, our honour, and our future.
Our children will still go through the pain of knowing what has been done and is currently done to our people by Canada, and all the dysfunction that it has created, but maybe they will finally know where to direct the anger and stop turning it inward and hurting themselves. That anger can be focused into passion which can then be channelled into action for our people.
Our future depends on our children loving themselves and having hope. We can’t ever let them lose that. Canada may want us to disappear, but we don’t have to let it happen.
All my relations…
Dr. Pamela D. Palmater is a Mi’kmaw lawyer and member of the Eel River Bar First Nation in New Brunswick. She teaches Indigenous law, politics and governance at Ryerson University and heads their Centre for Indigenous Governance.