What happened in residential schools was not “cultural genocide”. It wasn’t “language genocide”. And it wasn’t “almost genocide”. What happened in residential schools was genocide. Canadian officials targeted Indians for assimilation and elimination purely for economic and political reasons. Scalping bounties on certain Indigenous nations are indicative of such a lethal mentality.
Canada wasn’t killing Indians because of our cultures; it was killing Indians to get rid of the “Indian problem” as Indian Affairs officials kept referring to it. Commentators often refer to Duncan Campbell Scott’s quote regarding Indian policy in Canada as proof that the intention was assimilation and not elimination. Scott was the deputy superintendent general for the Department of Indian Affairs from 1913 to 1932, who explained in 1920:
“I want to get rid of the Indian problem….Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question and no Indian Department.”
However, there is more to the story than this. In 1907, Dr. Peter Bryce, the Chief Medical Officer for the federal government, wrote a report on the conditions in residential schools that detailed the astounding number of deaths of Indian children in those schools.
The government’s own lawyer also warned Canadian officials in 1907:
“Doing nothing to obviate the preventable causes of death, brings the Department within unpleasant nearness to the charge of manslaughter.”
Yet, there was no shock and alarm at the time nor did anyone from Indian Affairs come up with an emergency action plan to protect Indigenous children whom Scott referred to as “inmates.” Surprisingly, the deaths of Indigenous children appeared to be in line with the objective of the policy. In 1910, Scott explained in a letter he wrote to one of his Indian Agents:
“Indian children…die at a much higher rate [in residential schools] than in their villages. But this alone does not justify a change in the policy of this Department, which is geared towards a final solution of our Indian problem.”
Residential schools were never a well-intended policy “gone wrong” as claimed by former Minister of Indian Affairs, John Duncan. They were death camps for nearly half of all the “inmates” who entered some of those schools. The tiny handcuffs and the electric chairs speak of horrors completely unrelated to “education.”
These children didn’t die from smallpox or some other series of unfortunate and unpreventable events in those schools. Many of these children were starved, tortured, beaten, raped, and murdered. Nutritional tests and medical experimentations were done on these children only to be denied to benefit of the very medicines created at the expense of their suffering. This sounds eerily familiar to horrors inflicted on other populations around the world.
Survivor stories of frequent rapes, forced abortions, and unmarked graves stand in stark contradiction to any notion of a benign education policy — especially once government, church and law enforcement officials became aware of what was happening. Why else did these schools have graveyards instead of playgrounds?
It is too easy for politicians to claim “cultural genocide” now, when they are well aware that cultural genocide was specifically left out of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Much of the debate has focused on whether or not Canada “intended” to kill Indians. According to international legal experts, leaders can be held accountable if they knew or should have known about the actions and failed to prevent them. Direct evidence of intent is not necessary but can be inferred from circumstantial evidence. The few excerpts above prove that Canadian officials knew not only of the poor conditions in residential schools, but the large number of deaths that were occurring, and that they could be held accountable for “manslaughter.”
Genocide, by the UN definition, is said to 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.
Many have argued that the totality of Canada’s actions towards Indigenous peoples amounted to genocide. In other words, Canadian officials have been guilty of some or all of the above genocidal acts.
What is particularly striking is the genocidal act of deliberately creating the conditions of life meant to bring about the destruction of the group in whole or in part. The following acts have been found to be genocidal according to international criminal law:
- subjecting the group to a subsistence diet;
- systematic expulsion from homes;
- denial of right to medical services;
- creation of circumstances that would lead to a slow death, such as lack of proper housing, clothing and hygiene or excessive work or physical exertion; and
Think of the historic and ongoing conditions of many First Nations who were prohibited from leaving the reserve by law and given only minimal rations; or the Inuit and First Nations who were forcibly relocated from their homelands. There is also a direct link between Canada’s purposeful chronic underfunding of essential human services for First Nations (housing, water, sanitation) and their premature deaths. In residential schools, children were starved, denied medical care, and many suffered slow deaths.
Genocide is the material destruction of a group — even if not all members of the group are destroyed. There is no set number of people that must be killed for the crime of genocide to occur. It does not need to mimic the worst holocaust to be genocide. It must be a substantial part of the group. There is also no need for a government plan or policy to exist in order to find genocide. Even without a finding of genocide, the officials could still be charged with crimes against humanity or related crimes.
Given the significant death tolls, it does not matter whether the courts have accepted the claim of genocide, whether lawyers agree with the claim, or whether communications specialists think it might be too harsh a term to present to the Canadian public. What happened in residential schools were criminal acts back then, just as they are now. All of the people who had the power to stop these deaths (RCMP, Indian Affairs and the churches), not only knew about the deaths — but refused to act. At the very least, that is criminal negligence causing death.
We will never get to reconciliation unless we know the truth — all of it. So far, we have only scratched the surface.
Residential schools can’t be looked at in isolation. Indian policy included the forced sterilizations of Indigenous women and little girls. Forced sterilizations were never about our cultures — it was about eliminating our populations.(9) We are not overrepresented in prisons, in child and family services and as murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls because of our cultures.
We are targeted because we are Indians. Indigenous Nations stand in the way of unfettered land and water use, resource extraction and industrial development — i.e. complete environmental destruction in the name of corporate profit.
Justice Murray Sinclair and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) team have done the impossible — they succeeded in ensuring the voices of survivors were heard, that the atrocities committed in residential schools were documented, and that the truth be told. So far we have only seen the Executive Summary. The final report, which will be many thousands of pages long, will no doubt shed light on even more disturbing details.
In addition to the incredible emotional and psychological toll this must have taken on Justice Sinclair and his team, they stood strong in the face of the most aggressive anti-First Nation government Canada has seen in years. They, together with the survivors, are true heroes.
But we can’t expect the TRC to carry this burden alone. Nor is this story complete.
The TRC went as far as it could to address the issue of genocide in the face of various legal considerations and consistent political denial that these schools were anything other than well-intended educational institutes.
It’s on the rest of us to stand up for the truth and ensure Canadians know everything that happened in the schools covered in this report and the ones not yet exposed.
Canada tried in various ways to eliminate our cultures — through residential schools and outlawing our ceremonies and practices in the Indian Act. This is all true.
But Canada also created the conditions which led to our deaths by the thousands inside and outside residential schools. This is also true and this is genocide.
Once we can put the truth in the table, then we can talk about reconciliation. We need to act on the TRC recommendations related to truth-seeking: a national inquiry on murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls, an investigation into the overrepresentation of Indigenous peoples in prison, and immediate action and reporting on the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in foster care.
The Indian day school class action has just been accepted by the courts and that will likely also reveal similar abuses suffered by Indian children in even more schools.(11)
We must focus on getting all the facts so we can finally see justice for Indigenous peoples and true reconciliation. A determination that Canada did not commit genocide does not put an end to the story. It’s only just the beginning and it’s not going to be as easy as saying sorry. Canadian and Church officials who committed such horrific crimes upon Indigenous peoples need to be brought to justice.
The mass murder or manslaughter of our people requires criminal prosecution — just like it would anywhere else in the world. Canada doesn’t receive a “Get out of Jail free” card simply because it hid its atrocities so well. Real reconciliation requires justice.
Image: Wikimedia commons