‘The Conceit of Cultural Genocide in Canada’


Michael Melanson:

On June 2nd, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission will release the executive summary of its final report on the Indian Residential Schools (IRS). As if she were trying to beat everyone else to the punch, Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice Beverly McLachlan was the first to use the opportunity for dropping the G-bomb, declaring on May 28 that Canada had committed “cultural genocide” against aboriginal peoples through the residential schools. 

ERBLTheConceitofCulturalGenocideinCanada800x800FINALAlthough the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide doesn’t mention ‘cultural genocide’, the term has been used for many years by activists and academics to characterize the IRS. Canada’s accusers most often try to tease out violations from the clauses of the Convention but it is questionable whether the charge of cultural genocide has to meet any legal test at all since it isn’t criminalized. The SCOC Chief Justice would surely be aware of the impossibility of prosecuting cultural genocide in the World Court and for someone in her position to claim Canada is guilty of the worst crime against humanity when justice cannot be served in court is to make sure the wounds of the residential schools fester. 

How do you reconcile a crime against humanity committed in a liberal democracy without justice being served in international court?

For the activists and academics who bother trying to make the case of cultural genocide using the definitions and violations laid out in the UN Convention, their arguments can be easily refuted. The most common violation cited is: “e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” The transfer has to at least be intended to be permanent: students in the residential schools were permitted to return home for Christmas and summer holidays and were released entirely upon graduation.

There has to be an intent to destroy a group in whole or in part in the first place for a conviction of genocide to be reached; educating a group presupposes their continued existence. Although typically harsh and heavy-handed, the intent of the schools was demonstrably to make aboriginal children employable, self-reliant, productive members of society; goals not dissimilar to what education generally tries to accomplish nowadays.

Assimilation is especially vilified and is probably the point where the conceit of cultural genocide becomes most irrational. What is the alternative to assimilation? Segregation, which was the initial intent of the reserve system. It was the social consequences of segregation that prompted progressive thinkers of the period to suggest Indian Residential Schools. What future would native children have in Canada without English language skills? Nothing excuses the brutality with which the use of aboriginal languages and other cultural expressions were suppressed but as far as characterizing it as intentional cultural genocide, “taking the Indian out of the child” doesn’t mean the same thing as taking the Cree out of the child. IRS policy focussed on what it saw as a social problem and suppressing cultural expression was akin to modifying behaviour through aversion therapy. Corporal punishment was common in all schools.

Some have argued that the IRS violated the third clause (c) in the Convention: “Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about (the group’s) physical destruction in whole or in part.” While conditions in the schools were often miserable and substandard, by definition, negligence is not intent; it is indifference. There is no statute on homicide. Where death was caused by either criminal intent or negligence, prosecution should be undertaken wherever possible. The IRS clearly lacked oversight but conviction for genocide under this clause requires demonstrating a systemicity of destructive intent applied to practice. Unilateral, localized actions do not prove an overall policy of genocidal intent.

A few have claimed that the IRS violated d): “Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.” This claim is made specifically against forced sterilizations evidently undertaken in some of the schools. Sterilization was undertaken by the state outside of the IRS against the general population as part of a belief in eugenics that circulated amongst many progressive thinkers of the day. Sterilization was used as a way of making the inevitabilities of social Darwinism happen sooner. Had sterilization been used in or out of the residential schools as a means destroying aboriginal peoples, it would have happened on a far greater scale than it is reported to have been.


On May 31, Justice Murray Sinclair who chairs the Truth and Reconciliation Commission said: “This is the day we begin to change the history of the country.” Of course we can’t change what happened. Justice Sinclair is talking about changing the narrative of history, not its record. The presumption that Canadians are taught a false or even racist history of Canada is very common amongst activists and academics. Sinclair mentioned “the need to overcome racism that people were raised with, overcoming the stereotypes.”

Presuming non-aboriginal people are generally raised with racism is a stereotype and a gratuitous one at that. The public schools I attended in Winnipeg were fully permeated with liberal education policies. Racism was a social taboo in my peer group. When my mother would make racist remarks about a native, I knew she was being racist and wrong: I chose not to learn her errors.

The residential schools have become a global excuse for all the social ills that undeniably afflict aboriginal peoples and Justice Sinclair offers a typical summation: ‘High poverty rates, a large number of aboriginal children in foster care, a disproportionate number of Aboriginals in jail and hundreds of missing and murdered aboriginal women can all be traced back to residential schools.’ Besides making reconciliation less likely by conflating all the social pathologies within the aboriginal community, attributing everything wrong socially with the residential school experience has three serious flaws: 1) it removes personal responsibility for individual actions; 2) it depersonalizes individuals and glosses over their individual circumstances; and 3) it doesn’t expect aboriginal people to possess either the ability or faculties to not just react poorly to external conditions. As Paul Martin remarked today, ‘aboriginal children didn’t have the ability to learn how to parent.’ The Left rarely notices when it practices the bigotry of low expectations.

“This is the way we live now because of what happened to us,” Sinclair told an audience in November 2011. “Before (the IRS), we were a proud, independent, strong people; fully in control of this territory, fully in control of our future, fully in control of our identities. But that was taken away from us.” The national idyll that existed prior to Canada was destroyed by the emergence of the nation of Canada.

Sober sociological analysis isn’t what the TRC is about. Like the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry that he participated in, Justice Sinclair has an ulterior motive of promulgating more aboriginal self-governance. Characterizing the residential schools as genocidal is simply trying to use sensational language as a moral lever for prying aboriginal sovereignty from the constitutional order. “Canadians need to see First Nations as nations,” the editors of the Winnipeg Free Press demanded today and apparently a nation borne from genocidal victimization is justifiable. As one writer apologized a few days earlier: “It isn’t sensationalism, and it is legitimate as part of the ongoing struggle of indigenous groups to regain their sovereignty.”

firstnationsovereigntyreutersEDITCharacterizing the residential schools as genocide plunges the TRC into forcing an unfortunate challenge upon the public to accept the characterization rather than the record. Qualifying that genocide as cultural allows proponents to invest ‘regaining sovereignty’ with a moral imperative: culture was taken away by assimilation, it will best be restored through First Nations as nations. This formula was perhaps never put more aptly than by Dean Neu and Richard Therrien in their cheery book, “Accounting for Genocide: Canada’s Bureaucratic Assault on Aboriginal People” (Fernwood, 2003):

“Canadian Indian policy may not have been as overt or concentrated as the Holocaust would prove to be — but it was nonetheless violent and achieved much the same ends. Indeed, it might even be said that Canadian policy has been more effective than Nazi policy, since none of Canada’s First Nations have yet to regain full statehood, whereas the Jews have Israel. And we are not concerned here with numbers killed or degree of horror, but with endemic racism and the intentional facilitation by government bureaucracies in rendering cultures extinct.”

Aboriginal nationalism has always been romanticized (who could seriously suggest a remote reserve as its own nation-state) but with the occasion of the final TRC report, it’s a full-court press to push for aboriginal nationhood in principle. The editors of the Winnipeg Free Press have lately agreed with the more radical accusers amongst aboriginal nationalists that the current Child and Family Services regime is a continuation of the genocide started by the residential schools. Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Derek Nepinak has described the schools and the CFS seizures as “a concerted effort to destroy indigenous families and communities in the most insidious of ways, the ways of a genocide unlike any other experienced anywhere else.” Very insidious indeed given that CFS was devolved into separate aboriginal authorities a decade ago. A genocide where the perpetrators belong to the same group as the victims would be unlike any other genocide.

The conceit of genocide becomes so wildly chauvinistic if only because it receives very little critical opposition. Writing this now is likely to result in my being slandered as racist and with media being almost entirely sympathetic to the aboriginal narrative, it could easily mean a very public slandering. It is not that I apologize for the Canada that was, I write for the Canada that is because in the spectrum of human history, it is still very rare for so cosmopolitan a society as this to exist. Our tolerance and egalitarianism are triumphs of liberalism. Canada deserves to be defended against accusations that are not only demonstrably false but dangerous in their implications.

If a consensus prevails that there was a cultural genocide, then it automatically means Canada has committed history’s longest-running genocide. One wonders if, had Hollanders known this of Canada, would they have been so eager to cheer us as liberators for chasing our ertswhile dopplegangers out of their homelands? How could the longest-running genocide in history be suffered to go without prosecution? It is hard enough to bring Turkey to account for an Armenian genocide that occurred 100 years ago, but what does it mean to let a genocide of 150 years go unpunished? Committing genocide from its inception, if not conceived in the crime, has Canada any legitimate reason for existing? Is our only redemption to hive off our misbegotten land and franchise nationhood 633 times over?

More troubling, if the genocide is still ongoing, isn’t there a moral imperative to end it immediately? Where is Canada’s commitment to the duty to protect when it is needed within her borders? As much as extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, desperate times call for desperate measures.

If the Indian Residential Schools were so monumental a source of social harm leading to all the social pathologies presently afflicting aboriginal communities, should we consider aboriginal nationalism as another pathology borne of the same beast? If the Canada of today isn’t what a reconciled society would look like, just what kind of Canada does Justice Sinclair envision?

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