Did Canada commit genocide against Indigenous people? You decide.

On June 30, 2021 the Canadian Historical Association, “which represents 650 professional historians from across the country, including the main experts on the long history of violence and dispossession Indigenous peoples experienced in what is today Canada recognizes that this history fully warrants our use of the word genocide. The recent confirmation of hundreds of unmarked graves at former Indian Residential Schools in British Columbia and Saskatchewan is part of a wider history of the physical erasure of Indigenous peoples in Canada. Sadly, the recent news out of Kamloops and Marieval will not be the last and we fully expect further announcements to be made from coast to coast to coast”1.

On August 11, a coalition of Canadian historians responded with an open letter “accusing the body of dictating a single view of history upon the public”. “There are no grounds for such a claim that purports to represent the views of all of Canada’s professional historians,” reads the letter signed by 60 Canadian historians and academics.2

Article 2 of The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which was ratified by 149 states including Canada defines genocide as any of the following acts undertaken with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a group of people by (and we quote from https://www.un.org/en/genocideprevention/genocide.shtml):1

  1. Killing members of the group
  2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
  3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
  4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
  5. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

To their credit, the Canadian Historical Association (CHA) references the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People, the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and numerous provincial inquiries including the recent coroner’s inquest into the death of Joyce Echaquan in Québec. Why? Along with the “broad consensus” of historians, the “lived experience” as documented by the aforementioned groups supports the CHA conclusion: for over 150 years the reality and consequences of institutionalized genocide are evident in the pervasive and persistently negative impacts on Indigenous people.

What exactly does the “Open Letter” object to: two things: first, the CHA as a national association has no business advocating for a particular point of view on a historical issue as doing so undermines their organizational mandate to support academic debate and historical scholarship by recognizing and acknowledging diverging views and second, by criticizing historians for their negligence in accurately reporting on what the CHA validates as the realities of Indigenous history.

The last time I looked “broad consensus” means “a general agreement”. How that translates into the authors of the Open Letter’s assertion that the CHA “purports to represent the views of ALL (my emphasis) of Canada’s professional historians” is quite an overstatement. When professional organizations make position statements on the basis of “consensus”, they are not speaking – and in reality never could – speak for ALL of their members.

The National Post, however, chooses to ignore the main argument of the Open Letter: a national organization (CHA) should not be advocating for or against a particular issue but promoting rigorous scholarly and historical debate to further our collective understanding of differing views of the “truth”. The National Post chooses instead to focus on the word “genocide” and indirectly criticizes Indigenous leaders such as Murray Sinclair, former Chair or the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Pamela Palmater, Professor and the Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University and Harry LaForme, Canada’s first Indigenous appellate judge for being on the wrong side of the genocide debate.

And who does the National Post seek out to prove that Indigenous genocide was not real? A few of the 60 historians and academics, a lawyer but not a single Indigenous voice. If the intent was to provide evidence to support their view that what happened to Indigenous people was categorically not genocide, where was it? What facts support their conclusion? Evidence cannot be based on someone’s opinion or statements. According to the Oxford English dictionary, “evidence” is defined as “the available body of facts or information indicating whether a belief or proposition is true or valid”

What is the “truth” about Indigenous genocide? You decide.

The Evidence

Killing members of the group

  • The Canadian Government used deliberate and planned starvation of Indigenous people as an official policy to force them off the land and onto isolated, unproductive reservations to clear the way for the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway and settlement of the west3
  • Forced relocation and confinement on reservations (1885-1951)4 allowed diseases such as tuberculosis, smallpox, measles, whooping cough and influenza to decimate Indigenous people due to the substandard living conditions on reserves that continue to this day3
  • Official government policy was to maintain poor living conditions on Indian Residential Schools which resulted in significantly higher than normal deaths. Officially, 3,201 Indigenous children died while attending residential schools. Since May 27, 2021 an additional 1,447 “unmarked graves” have been found at six residential schools in three provinces with more to follow. Official records at the same schools identified only 256 deaths5
    • The Bryce Report submitted to the federal government in 1906 warned of the “unacceptably high rates of death in residential schools.” The government ignored his recommendations and fired Bryce6. Duncan Campbell Scott, Deputy Superintendent-General of Indian Affairs stated that “50% of the children who passed through these schools did not live to benefit from the education they received therein” but refused to adjust official government policy in order to contain costs6
  • The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenus Women and Girls “concludes that a genocide driven by the disproportionate level of violence faced by Indigenous women and girls occurred in Canada through state actions and inactions rooted in colonialism and colonial ideologies. Indigenous women and girls represent 16% of all female homicides in Canada (1980-2012) while constituting only 4% of the female population7

Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

  • Forced relocation in 1956 of more than 250 Sayisi Dene from their traditional territory in Northern Manitoba where they were successful hunters and trappers to barren tundra outside Churchill, Manitoba. By 1973 – only 17 years later – 117 of them were dead8 (The government apologized on August 16, 2016)
  • Forced relocation of Innu to the High Arctic more than 1,200 kilometres from their traditional home in Inukjuak in northern Québec – without adequate shelter or provisions. The government reneged on their promise to allow them to return to their original home after two years9 (The government apologized on August 10, 2010)
  • Forced relocation of Ahiarmiut Inuit multiple times in 1950, 1957, 1959-60 through 1969 resulting in multiple deaths, extreme hardship and loss of traditional way-of-life10 (The federal government apologized in 2019)
  • The Indigenous suicide rate versus non-Indigenous is 5 times higher (First Nations) and 9 times higher (Inuit) due primarily to the substandard living conditions on reserves and in the north where the UN Development index ranks First Nations between 63rd and 78th. The federal government’s Community Well-Being Index shows that the gap has not changed since 198111

Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

  • The Canadian Government used deliberate and planned starvation of Indigenous people as an official policy to force them off the land and onto isolated, unproductive reservations to clear the way for the building of CP rail and settlement of the west3
  • The Qikiqtani Truth Commission Final Report: Achieving Saimaqatigiingniq – April, 201412 addressed the profound and long-lasting negative impacts on Inuit life. The federal government officially apologized 5 years later on August 14, 2019 for:
    • relocations from ilagiit nunagivaktangat to permanent settlements;
    • the deaths of qimmiit (Inuit sled dogs) which reduced their ability to hunt and support their families;
    • the removal of Inuit children from families for extended periods of time; and
    • the tragic separation of families due to the lack of medical services in the North
  • During the tuberculosis epidemic from the 1940s to the 1960s, thousands of Inuit were sent away from their communities for tuberculosis treatment in southern Canada, where they were cut off from their language, their culture, their families, and their home. In too many cases, when people passed away during treatment, they were buried far from home, leaving families with no knowledge of the fate of their loved ones. Prime Minister Trudeau apologized on behalf of the Government of Canada to Inuit for its actions on March 8, 201913
  • Aboriginal children were deliberately starved in the 1940s and ’50s by government researchers in the name of science14. For over a decade, about 1,300 aboriginal children and adults were unknowingly subjected to nutritional experiments by Canadian government bureaucrats.
    • Milk rations were halved for years at residential schools across the country. 
    • Essential vitamins were kept from people who needed them. 
    • Dental services were withheld because gum health was a measuring tool for scientists and dental care would distort research.

Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

  • About 1,150 Indigenous women were sterilized in federally operated Indian hospitals over a 10-year period up until the early 1970s. (Senate Report)15. There is also a current class action lawsuit against forced sterilization of Indigenous women in Saskatoon hospitals16 as well as current investigations into Québec First Nations and Inuit communities experiences with “obstetric violence”17
  • 72 organizations endorse the joint statement from Amnesty International Canada, the Native Women’s Association of Canada, and Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights, calling for government action to #DefendConsent and end #ForcedSterilization of Indigenous women in Canada18
  • Forcing Indigenous women from the north to travel long distances from their home communities with no family member to give births in hospitals in the south where they are alone, do not speak the language and have to deal with the systemic racism entrenched in the health system19.
  • Birth Alerts to apprehend Indigenous babies at birth are still being enforced in multiple provinces: Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick and Québec). Other provinces only recently ended the practice: Ontario Oct. 15, 2020, Manitoba (June 30, 2020) and BC (Sept. 16, 2019), Saskatchewan (Feb. 1, 2021) and PEI (Feb. 5, 2021). 54% of all children in Child Welfare system in Canada are Indigenous20

Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group21.

  • An estimated 200,000 Indigenous Day students originally excluded from the 2006 Indigenous Residential School Settlement Agreement. Initially, a $1.27 billion class action settlement over allegations of harm suffered by students attending Federal Indian Day Schools in Canada, the final report indicates that the government paid out more than $3 billion to claimants
  • 150,000 Indigenous children forcibly taken from their homes to attend 139 “officially recognized” Indian Residential Schools across the country. The TRC estimated in its Final Report that over 6,000 Indigenous children died while attending the schools. Based on that, the odds of dying at a residential school were greater than that of a soldier dying in World War II22
  • The federal government has spent $3,231,000 fighting – and is still fighting – the 1,000 Indigenous students from St. Anne’s Indian Residential School who were excluded from the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement23
  • 20,000 Indigenous children apprehended during the Sixties Scoop to be adopted by non-Indigenous families in Canada and in the United States. The governments of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba apologized for their actions in implementing the Sixties Scoop21

The above barely scratches the surface. It doesn’t address the continued government objections – Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Québec and New Brunswick – to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that “constitute the minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of the indigenous peoples of the world”. It doesn’t address the continued reliance of all levels of government on the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius to make Canadian law preeminent over Indigenous laws and legal traditions and, in effect, override any Indigenous objections to what happens in their territory – whether they have a signed treaty of not!

At the end of the day, from the government’s perspective, Indigenous people don’t count. The bottomline is exactly that. Only the government gets to decide what really matters. Is that also “erasure”. Eliminating existing Indigenous rights based on colonial dictums. Not all at once, of course. But chipping away year after year.

Genocide. You decide.

NOTES:

  1. “The History of Violence Against Indigenous Peoples Fully Warrants the Use of the Word “Genocide.” Canada Day Statement. The Canadian Historical Association.June 30, 2021
  2. Historians oppose statement saying Canada is guilty of genocide“. National Post. August 11, 2021
  3. Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation and the Loss of Indigenous Life” University of Regina Press. New Edition. 2019.
  4. Indian Act and The Pass System“. Indigenous Corporate Training. June 23, 2015. All Indigenous people were confined to their reserves from 1885 to 1951 (66 years) unless they were given a pass by the local Indian agent
  5. Indigenous Watchdog. Missing Children and Burial Information. Calls to Action 71-76
  6. Conrad Black’s bogus attack on Truth and Reconciliation: He white-washes history to minimize Indigenous “grievances“. Blog post. Indigenous Watchdog. May 27, 2021
  7. Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. June 3, 2019
  8. Manitoba’s Sayisi Dene: Forced relocation, racism, survival“. CBC. August 16, 2016
  9. Inuit get federal apology for forced relocation”. CBC. August 10, 2021
  10. Ahiarmiut: Out-of-the-Way Dwellers. directed by Louise Abbott. Friend of Canadian Broadcasting
  11. Honouring the Promises: 2019 Federal Election Priorities for First Nations and Canada.” AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde
  12. Qikiqtani Truth Commission “Final Report: Achieving Saimaqatigiing” 2014
  13. Prime Minister delivers apology to Inuit for the federal government’s management of tuberculosis epidemic from the 1940s-1960s” CISION. March 8, 2019
  14. Nutrition researchers saw malnourished children at Indian Residential Schools as perfect test subjects.” The Conversation. Allison Daniel. June 28, 2021
  15. Indigenous women still forced, coerced into sterilization.” Senate Report. Global News. June 3, 2021
  16. Indigenous women come forward with accounts of forced sterilization, says lawyer“. CBC. April 18, 2019
  17. Launch of research on free and informed consent and imposed sterilization among First Nations and Inuit women in Quebec.” The Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue and the First Nations of Quebec and Labrador Health and Social Services Commission
  18. Urgent Action Needed to Ensure Indigenous Women Are Not Sterilized Without Their Consent.”Joint Statement Calling on Canada to End Sterilization without Consent. Endorsed by 72 organizations
  19. “‘Staggering disparity’: Study finds Indigenous people travel farther to give birth.” Global News, June 20, 2021
  20. Several Canadian provinces still issue birth alerts, deemed ‘unconstitutional and illegal’ in B.C” Toronto Star. January 15, 2021
  21. Truth and Reconciliation Call to Action # 29. Indigenous Watchdog. June 14, 2021
  22. Truth and Reconciliation Commission. By The Numbers” CBC. June 3, 2015
  23. “‘So they can be at peace’: St. Anne’s residential school survivors still fight for justice”. TVO June17, 2021

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