Unbelievable, but undeniable: Genocide in Canada
| NOVEMBER 6, 2011
I am moved to write this blog because of Minister 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 alot 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…
Harper’s Indigenous Manifesto: Erasing Indigenous Peoples from Canada
To some readers, the term “elimination” may seem a little harsh, somewhat of an exaggeration, or perhaps rhetoric blown out of proportion which forgets the good intentions governments, churches and traders had for Indigenous peoples. I beg to differ – not because I fall into any externally imposed category of left-wing, liberal, radical or “nutbar”. I beg to differ because the facts – the brutal, uncomfortable facts tell us a much different story. My biggest concern is not that the colonization project devastated Indigenous peoples, because the historical record clearly shows it did; it is that the colonization and devastation of Indigenous peoples continues, albeit couched in softer terminology.
Today, the few history books that have been amended to include mention of Indigenous peoples speak of the tragic loss of Indigenous cultures over time. They speak of this “loss” as a romantic part of our history where the strong, noble Indian chief on his horse looks across the horizon and realizes that the ways of his people are fading away with the coming of European trains, traders and technologies. This sort of representation may even invoke feelings of melancholy in Canadians who long for the simplicity of the old days. But it belies the truth about Canada and its direct and intentional “obliteration” of Indigenous peoples, cultures and territories.
If the term “elimination” does not make some readers uncomfortable, surely the term “obliteration” will. The purposeful destruction of a people implies the kind of ill-intent, even malice upon which a country like Canada could surely never have been built? Terms like those imply that perhaps what happened to Indigenous peoples was not simply “progress”, “civilization” or a “good policy gone wrong” – no, this falls in the realm of a word that usually upsets the majority of readers: genocide.
Many people do not understand the legal definition of genocide, nor are they aware of how genocide is considered internationally. Many are of the misunderstanding that genocide is the mass murder of millions of people all in one shot – something akin to the holocaust. In fact, genocide is defined in the United Nations Convention on Genocide as follows:
In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
- (a) Killing members of the group;
- (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
- (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
- (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
- (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
That is the definition. In Canada and the United States, settler governments have committed genocide against Indigenous peoples, not under just one category, but under every single category noted above. We all know it, but the reality stands in such stark contrast to the mythology created by government about what Canada stands for, that many people resort to denial. Indigenous peoples who have raised the subject have been referred to as “nutbars”, “whackos”, “conspiracy theorists”, “radicals” and “terrorists”.
The issue of genocide is radical – not because it is not true, but because it stands so far outside the realm of humanity and human rights that the tendency is to save the term for only the most obvious, horrific, well-known instances of genocide committed in places far away from Canada.
The term genocide is usually saved for instances where the victims are considered to be humans – and Indigenous peoples have long been characterized as non-humans for centuries. Aside from the historical depictions of Indigenous peoples as “savages”, “heathens” or “pagans”, they have also been treated by governments as “dangerous and sub-human”. The myth of Indigenous peoples being sub-human allowed governments to steal Indigenous lands under the legal fiction of “terra nullius” (lands belonging to no one). They knew better of course, but it allowed them to justify not only the theft of lands from Indigenous peoples, but the brutal acts of genocide which were committed upon them.
The fact that early governments sent small-pox infested blankets to Indigenous communities knowing it would nearly wipe them all out, is a historical fact. These were not the actions of a few bad apples, or something that happened in the stone age. This has been acknowledged as modern “biological warfare” by publications in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The scalping laws in Nova Scotia were deliberate acts of murder which decimated the Mi’kmaw Nation population by almost 80%. The forced surgical sterilization of Indigenous women against their will, and often without their knowledge or consent, destroyed Indigenous peoples in a very physical way.
The government and church-run residential schools knowingly created conditions that led to the mass deaths of the Indigenous children who attended – upwards of 40% never made it out alive. Incredibly, not only did government officials know that Indigenous children were dying and even “acknowledged” the high rates of deaths and their causes, but this was part of the overall objective:
“But this alone does not justify a change in the policy of this Department, which is geared towards the final solution of our Indian problem.” (SI Indian Affairs, Duncan Campbell Scott)
Why do I bring all this uncomfortableness up in my blog? Why am I asking readers to face the brutal reality that is Canada? It is because genocidal acts against Indigenous peoples continue to this day, hidden in government policies which purport to be in the best interests of Indigenous peoples. It is because every government (Libs and Cons) has had a hand in continuing the situation, but mostly because this Harper government has ramped up efforts to eliminate Indigenous peoples. In my opinion, the Harper Indigenous Manifesto is about erasing Indigenous peoples from Canada socially, culturally, legally and physically.
What used to be forced sterilizations to prevent child births and control Indigenous populations is now pre-mature deaths from the extreme poverty directly linked to chronic, purposeful under-funding, over-prescription of addictive drugs, and lack of housing, water and sanitation.
What used to be residential schools became the 60’s scoop and is now child and family services removing our children from our communities at alarming rates.
What used to be European/western education forced on our children through residential schools, is now the provincial school systems, which for the most part, teach the same western ideologies, histories, sciences and politics to our children and specifically exclude our traditional Indigenous knowledges, languages and cultures.
What used to be scalping laws, are now starlight tours, murdered and missing Indigenous women by the hundreds, and quelling land claims with brute military and police force.
What used to be laws against Indigenous peoples leaving their reserves are now laws which take away rights when one leaves the reserve (taxes, governance, jurisdiction, trade, identity).
What used to be laws against Indigenous peoples gathering in one place is now CSIS, RCMP, DND and INAC putting us on terrorist watch lists, monitoring our movements, and over-incarcerating our men, women and youth at increasing rates.
What used to be laws against Indigenous peoples hiring lawyers to advocateon their behalf, are now devasting funding cuts to local, regional and provincial First Nation political organizations. All coming at a time when Harper wants chaos, confusion, and lack of political capacity to ensure there is little resistance to his comprehensive Indian Act-based legislative agenda.
He hopes to strike fear and confusion in chiefs so that they don’t know whether to stay quiet and hope it doesn’t get worse, or take action. Either way, funding cuts will be imposed on local First Nations as well. This is not about whether regional political organizations are doing a good job or not – this is about Harper fulfilling the original intentions of Indian policy (1) accessing Indigenous lands and resources and (2) reducing financial obligations to Indigenous peoples. He just happens to see striking at political organizations as the best way to isolate individual First Nations, already overwhelmed with issues, so they are easier to bully into submission.
The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) either does not have the capacity or inclination to take these issues on. Regardless of the reasons, it is clear that local community members are going to be looking to their local First Nation governments to take action. In the same vein, First Nation leaders will be looking for assistance from their treaty, regional and provincial organizations. The days of waiting for the AFN to do something are over. If these funding cuts are ok, so will be the ones that come to individual First Nations, then will come the eventual constitutional changes, the accelerated extinguishment of Aboriginal and treaty rights, and the division and sale of the rest of our lands.
If Canadians think that this does not concern them – they should think again. As your “Canada” slowly becomes a dictatorship led by a rogue Prime Minister who is obsessed with power, Canadian laws, rules, and regulations are breached with impunity. Everything from elections, ethics, budgets, and legislation are manipulated without regard for the rule of law. The damage done by these renegade Conservatives is already so severe that analysts feel it will take years to undo the harm.
In standing beside Indigenous peoples to oppose these destructive policies, Canadians would be living up to the spirit and intent of the treaties and, in so doing, protecting their own futures. Economic reports have already shown that the costs of maintaining Indigenous peoples in poverty is higher than the solutions. Those same studies show that the costs of delaying the resolution of land claims and treaty implemention for example, are higher than if those claims were resolved equitably. Even the most basic math shows that it costs more to keep an Indigenous person in a federal prison for one year ($100,000) than it does to pay for a 4-year university degree ($60,000).
If you think for a minute that once Harper is done erasing Indigenous peoples, that he won’t come after women, children, the impoverished, the remaining pristine environmental areas, water basins and sanctuaries all in the name of wealth and power, think again. There is no room for justice, diversity or freedom in a dictator’s view of the world.
We are all compelled to act. Our reasons do not have to be the same. I can be a Mi’kmaw citizen and someone else can be a Canadian citizen, but still have a mutual interest in protecting the environment. Whether someone votes in federal and provincial elections, or like me, does not vote in elections – we all still share the desire to protect our waterways. One can be Maliseet and someone else French, but still feel it important protect our cultures for future generations.
I have no intention of letting Harper erase me, my family, my home community or Mi’kmaw Nation. Let’s put our heads together about a plan of action.