Canada’s Conversation on Cultural Genocide

By Cynthia Dawn Roy

After six years of investigating the impacts of residential schools in Canada, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) released a summary of its final report June 2. The report’s final conclusion was that the residential school system was an act of “cultural genocide”. Reactions to this term varied from incredulity and anger to joy and relief. In the weeks that followed the TRC closing ceremonies, aboriginal activists and organizations stressed the importance of keeping TRC issues as part of a national conversation. As I monitored Canada’s response to the TRC’s conclusion, it became apparent that much of this conversation revolved around whether or not “cultural genocide” is an appropriate term for the residential schools, and the effect that this label has on Canadian and aboriginal societies. This post will summarize and reflect on various trends in this conversation throughout June 2015.

(For a full summary see embedded spread sheet or view original .)

The conversation on Cultural Genocide took off after Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin said Canada attempted “cultural genocide” against the aboriginal peoples five days before the release of the TRC report.[1] Until this point, the term cultural genocide with regard to residential schools had been reserved for use by certain academics and radical activists. The next day, Sinclair told Canada’s CBC that the TRC estimated that at least 6,000 children died while in the residential school system and that he agreed with the Chief Justice’s declaration that Canada attempted cultural genocide.[2] In an interview with the Ottawa Citizen May 30, former Prime Minister Paul Martin also stated that Canada’s attempt to assimilate aboriginals amounted to cultural genocide, and that Canadians should waste no time in taking concrete actions to improve relations with First Nations.[3] The acknowledgment of Canada’s attempt to assimilate its indigenous peoples by these three esteemed Canadians paved the way for the TRC to state as its main conclusion that the residential school system was an act of cultural genocide.

In the weeks following this conclusion, the phrase cultural genocide escalated from obscurity to common Canadian jargon. Soon after the TRC closing ceremonies, both Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard and Opposition leader Tom Mulcair also labeled Canada’s assimilation policies cultural genocide. The sudden wide-spread acceptance of the term signifies a shift in Canadian thinking towards aboriginal issues and the residential schools. Educators and activists like Kahente Horn-Miller and Jim Daschuk, who once feared the term would turn Canadians away from responding to aboriginal issues, believe the acceptance of this phrase is empowering. Horn-Miller, an assistant professor at Carleton University, avoided the term in the classroom, for fear of being perceived as a radical, and her arguments would be dismissed. When Justice Sinclair used the term cultural genocide at the release of the TRC report, she “felt a sense of victory and hope because now I can call it what it is.”[4] Likewise, Jim Daschuk, author of Clearing the Plains, said he didn’t use the term cultural genocide in his book because he thought the public wasn’t ready to accept it, but he has used the phrase in most of the 50 talks he’s given in the last year. He can see that people’s responses to this idea is changing.[5]

It is a term that carries weight on an international scale. The Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders characterized cultural genocide as “a crime with a real, internationally accepted definition,” one that would be tough to beat if it came down to a formal hearing.[6] Saunders also pushed readers to consider how recently this crime was committed. The last school only closed down in 1996, where children were given minimum education and forced to work school farms and gardens to keep the schools self-sufficient. He claimed that if Canadians learned of tens of thousands of child-labourers forced away from their communities because of their race, “we would probably use a phrase stronger than ‘cultural genocide’”.

This new label for Canada’s assimilation policies has not been met without contention, however. Less than a week after the TRC’s report summary was released, Conrad Black’s column in the National Post said he believed Chief Justice McLachlin and the TRC’s use of the phrase cultural genocide was “deliberately provocative and sensational”, since all countries built on immigration used assimilation techniques to some degree.[7] He wrote that Canada’s aboriginal people had a “stone age” culture before Europeans arrived, and that they should be grateful Europeans arrived, because “we have made vastly more of this continent than its original inhabitants could have done.” While Black displays one extreme Canadian mindset, he is not alone in believing that Canadians are undeserving of the cultural genocide label. Toronto Star’s Richard Gwyn expressed a more widespread attitude, saying “it would be very hard to find anyone who believes Canadians are the kind of people who engage in cultural genocide.” [8] Those who consider Canada’s immigration programs and multiculturalism to be international role-models are left dumbfounded when assaulted with findings from the TRC’s investigation.

On the other hand, Pamela Palmater, a Mi’kmaq lawyer, professor and politician insists that the TRC’s terminology does not go far enough. She states that Canada did not commit “cultural genocide”, rather, “What happened in residential schools was genocide”.[9] She draws attention to Duncan Campbell Scott, whose intended to use residential schools to “get rid of the Indian problem”. When later confronted in 1907 with the astounding number of aboriginal children dying in the schools, Scott explained that this did not justify a change in policy, which was “geared toward a final solution of our Indian problem.” Palmater states that it’s far too easy for Canada to admit to cultural genocide after Canada fought to have cultural genocide excluded from the UN’s Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Canada’s insistence that cultural genocide be left out of the UN’s Genocide Convention was also covered in detail by Joseph Brean in the National Post, who reveals that if cultural genocide was not removed from the final draft, Canada intended to abandon the entire Genocide Convention.[10]

As Canadians grapple with the implications of their nation being accused of such a heinous crime as genocide, numerous writers drawn comparisons between the genocide of Canada’s indigenous peoples and other known genocides; most notably, the Holocaust. Bernie Farber, the son of a Holocaust survivor himself, has insisted in numerous opinion pieces that Canadians must acknowledge that Canada perpetrated cultural genocide against indigenous peoples before reconciliation is possible. “I know what it means to be part of a community that lost more than a generation of its people,” he claims, saying that deniers of Canada’s genocide will soon be dismissed like those who tried to deny the Holocaust.[11] While comparisons of the residential schools to the Holocaust are common, not all are helpful. Catherine Chatterley, who teaches on anti-Semitism and the Holocaust at the University of Manitoba, often witnesses student making equations between Auschwitz and Canadian residential schools, but as students learn about the realities of the Nazi death camps, these assumptions disappear. “Forced acculturation is not extermination,” she states, in direct contrast to Palmater’s arguments.[12] Furthermore, Chatterley insists that, while Jews and Canadian aboriginals may have productive conversations on preserving culture in the face of assimilation pressures, comparisons between genocides “do not do justice to the uniqueness of the Aboriginal experience.” She asserts that it is important for Canada to create a climate that is sensitive enough to recognize the suffering experienced by residential school survivors without ranking it on a victimization scale.

These few articles are by no means conclusive or exhaustive, but they do represent key arguments and trends in a far larger conversation on the TRC report and its conclusions of cultural genocide. Since the suffering of residential school survivors have been brought to light, Canadians have grappled with how to accept responsibility, and will likely continue to do so for years to come. Having our country characterized as a land that tolerated abuse and perpetrated genocide causes us to question how to appreciate our history and forefathers when they were the cause of so much grief. The reason the TRC put so much emphasis on cultural genocide in their report was to spur us to action. The ongoing discussion on how the cultural genocide label applies to the Canadian and First Nations experience is a positive thing, but we must guard against allowing this term to distract us from taking responsibility and action.

[1] Sean Fine. “Chief Justice says Canada attempted ‘cultural genocide’ on aboriginals,” The Globe and Mail, 28 May, 2015, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/

[2] John Paul Tasker. “Residential school findings point to ‘cultural genocide,’ commission chair says,” CBC News, http://www.cbc.ca/

[3] Mark Kennedy. “Canada must improve native education, health care now: Paul Martin,” Ottawa Citizen, 30 May, 2015, http://ottawacitizen.com/

[4] Kahente Horn-Miller. “Term cultural genocide ‘carries weight’ in the classroom, teacher says,” CBC News, 14 June, 2015, http://www.cbc.ca/

[5] Jason Warick. “Accepting cultural genocide label only a first step, experts say,” The StarPhoenix, 8 June, 2015, http://www.thestarphoenix.com/

[6] Doug Sanders. “Residential schools, reserves and Canada’s crime against humanity.” The Globe and Mail, 5 June, 2015, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/

[7] Conrad Black. “Canada’s treatment of aboriginals was shameful, but it was not genocide,” National Post, 6 June, 2015, http://news.nationalpost.com/

[8] Richard Gwyn. “Did Canada really commit ‘cultural genocide’?: Gwyn,” The Toronto Star, 8 June, 2015, http://www.thestar.com/

[9] Pamela D. Palmater. “Canadian and Church Officials Must be Accountable for Genocide,” TeleSUR, 17 June, 2015, http://www.telesurtv.net/

[10] Joseph Brean. “ Canada opposed concept of ‘cultural genocide’ in 1948 accord,” National Post, 8 June, 2015, http://news.nationalpost.com/

[11] Bernie Farber. “Truth, reconciliation and genocide denial,” Now Toronto, 21 June, 2015, https://nowtoronto.com/

[12] Catherine Chatterley. “How to avoid a victimization Olympics,” The Huffington Post, 17 June, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/


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