Truth and Reconciliation

Atonement for Canada’s genocide must work for both sides

Recognition and acceptance of history can only go so far in addressing its legacy
Photo: Nick Kenrick

Is Canada guilty of its own genocide? There was a time not all that long ago when even raising the question would invite all manner of ridicule.

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How things have changed. Today the topic has shifted from something whispered at the margins to the source of serious study and open debate. Multiple books, even entire conferences, have been dedicated to what enabled it.

Late last year, along with about 300 other people, I attended a panel entitled Genocide: The Canadian Perspective at a national Indigenous health conference held in Toronto. Addressing the crowd were neurosurgeon and philanthropist Michael Dan, former Canadian Jewish Congress CEO and rights advocate Bernie M. Farber, and former leader of the Assembly of First Nations Phil Fontaine, now an advisor to Royal Bank.

As it turns out, the non-Aboriginal panelists came across as the more adamant: their forceful argumentation suggested they harboured no doubts whatsoever as to the applicability of genocide to the Canadian context. That’s quite something when you consider Farber’s father was one of only two Jewish survivors of the Nazi purge of his hometown in Poland.

If denial of Canadian genocide is no longer so automatic, how far does such recognition or acceptance go? For example, like Farber, what often gets my back up is some people’s insistence on using the term "cultural genocide" or "ethnocide to describe the wrongs waged by the Canadian state and populace against Indigenous peoples. It feels like a qualifier, a way to diminish and somehow contain the effects of that conduct — even excuse it. As if to say, “Sure, I grant that the government did some pretty shitty things way back when, but, c’mon, it’s not like we dropped an H-bomb to wipe you guys off the face of the planet, right?” (I must confess, some f-bombs of my own rush to mind at such moments.)

But here’s the thing. According to Raphael Lemkin, the man who coined the term genocide (and thus exerted great influence on the moral, legal and political framework that followed), this crime against humanity doesn’t necessarily require the total physical annihilation of a people. Lemkin wrote that genocide is “the criminal intent to destroy or cripple permanently a human group.” As to what constitutes “crippling,” it seems likely he’d admit such bedrock Canadian policies as the single-minded, systematic effort to eradicate the linguistic and spiritual foundations of some 60 distinct Indigenous peoples via residential schools.

And yet, for some, there’s a word in Lemkin’s definition that attenuates or absolves Canada’s responsibility for genocide: the word intent. Did Canada really mean to cause Indigenous populations such pain and suffering out of some perversely pre-meditated plan? Didn’t the country force thousands of Aboriginal children into those schools in good faith, only to later realize the damage these institutions had inflicted? It’s a convenient cop-out, one many fall back on to escape justice or evade guilt.

How inconvenient then are the facts of the matter, a number of which came up in Michael Dan’s methodical indictment of “Indian” residential schools. According to Dan, decision makers knew as early as 1907 of the public health crisis ripping through some schools, with Aboriginal students suffering outrageously high death rates (24 to 69 per cent) due to tuberculosis, which thrived in the overcrowded, dilapidated schools. And yet, “Canada chose to do nothing” said Dan. The country built some new schools but left older ones intact. This means that when attendance was made mandatory for all Status Indian children by 1920, the use of these veritable death traps was “intended, by omission, to bring about the physical suffering and destruction of an entire group,” according to Dan. Clearly, more than languages died within those insidious institutions.

Farber cited recently published scholarship by University of Regina professor James Daschuk as evidence of Canada’s genocidal intent. In his book, Clearing the Plains, Daschuk documents the deliberate, often fatal campaign of starvation that Prime Minister John A. Macdonald imposed upon Indigenous peoples as a way to move them off their lands and thus make room for immigration and a railroad. To Farber, the parallels that can be drawn between these sickening tactics and those of another genocide — that of Holodomor, when millions in the Ukraine died due to famine engineered under Stalin — are both obvious and apt. The difference is but in scale.

For his part, Fontaine said he agreed “100 per cent” with his fellow panelists. He also spoke candidly about why the multi-billion dollar residential school survivor settlement he helped negotiate made no explicit mention of genocide. “Even though we knew people deserved more, we also knew it would see nothing happen if we pushed for its inclusion.” Fontaine then alluded to the manifold challenges First Nations continue to endure as a living legacy of the depravity of successive Canadian governments: ill health, poverty, a severe housing deficit, poor access to drinking water, and, perhaps most staggering of all, the current high number of children in state custody, which surpasses the levels achieved at the height of the residential schools era.

As Farber noted at the event and elsewhere with his fellow panelists, Canada must now face up to “a genocide in search of a name, but no longer in search of historical facts.” The sad and horrible truth is that it did happen here, and if we are to collectively move beyond this bloody history (the knock-on effects of which still clearly play out today), Canada must fully own and atone for what it’s done to this land’s original peoples on terms, and by means, agreeable to both sides.

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