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Naming genocide is an essential step in decolonization

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If we were to apply the United Nations definition of genocide, then the Canadian state committed genocide against Indigenous peoples.

Historically, 150,000 Indigenous children were taken from their families and forced to attend residential schools where they were forbidden to speak their language or practice their religion; an estimated 6,000 children died at those schools (the government stopped counting in 1920).

Just last week, it was heart wrenching to read CTV's report, which stated that: "Campers have for years parked their RVs at the Turtle Crossing campground along the Assiniboine River in Manitoba, without knowing that it's situated on the site of unmarked graves of more than 50 Indigenous children who died at the Brandon Residential School."

It's also horrifying that 1,300 Indigenous children at residential schools were used as medical test subjects (including the testing of tuberculosis vaccines), tens of thousands of Indigenous children (an estimated one in five children at residential schools) suffered sexual abuse, and most were malnourished (which increases susceptibility to diabetes and heart disease) while others had nutrition experiments conducted on them.

The Sixties Scoop, which took place between the 1950s and the 1980s, also saw an estimated 20,000 Indigenous children taken from their families and fostered or adopted primarily by white families. In the 1970s there were about 1,200 Indigenous women coerced into being sterilized, with almost half of the procedures at hospitals operated by the federal government.

And the figures that reflect the continuing impact of this unacknowledged genocide are staggering: more than 1,200 missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, 30,000 to 40,000 Indigenous children are now in state care (more than during the residential school era), 26 per cent of the federal prison population is Indigenous, and the suicide rate among Indigenous youth is about five to six times higher than for non-Indigenous youth in this country.

Federal government documents earlier this year also noted that the life expectancy for Indigenous people in Canada is 15 years shorter than the general population, infant mortality rates are two to three times higher, and the incidence of diabetes is four times higher.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, former prime minister Paul Martin, and former Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin have already agreed Canada committed "cultural genocide" (without the deep public reckoning that should have provoked).

The UN doesn't have a definition of cultural genocide, but says acts of genocide include "killing members of the group; causing serious bodily 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."

As Canada's first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, played a central role in the genocidal and white supremacist actions (including the establishment of residential schools in the 1870s) that took place during his governments of 1867 to 1873 and 1878 to 1891. He was also the minister of "Indian affairs" for nine years after the 1878 election.

In 1883, Macdonald arguing in the House of Commons for residential schools, stated:

"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. He is simply a savage who can read and write. Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence."

Yes, we need to remove Macdonald's name from schools, book prizes, roadways and pub names, yes we need to topple the statues that celebrate and uncritically commemorate him, but that's only a first step toward decolonization.

The Canadian state must acknowledge the autonomy of Indigenous nations, recognize free, prior and informed consent, and follow steps identified by Indigenous peoples to address the ongoing colonial legacies of poverty, violence, and despair.

If Macdonald was a product of his era as some claim, then we must unequivocally reject that period in time and its ongoing impacts. Removing statues of him does not hide our history as others argue, it reflects our condemnation of colonialism, murder and abuse. Naming Macdonald's crimes does not obscure the complexity of history, it affirms that the abduction and abuse of children has always been wrong.

Others say it is wrong and "progressive revisionism" to condemn Macdonald. Given historical revisionism simply means to revise our understanding and presentation of a previously accepted situation, let us now denounce genocide without hesitation.

As others have argued, "Macdonald statues should be removed from public space and instead placed in archives or museums, where they belong as historical artifacts. Public space should celebrate collective struggles for justice and liberation, not white supremacy and genocide."

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