Historical treatment of Aboriginal Canadians and Genocide

 

The term genocide was coined by Raphael Lemkin. It can be defined as the destruction or elimination of a certain groups of people. In terms of the historical treatment of aboriginal people in Canada, it may not seem as genocide on the surface to most people, but to others more familiar with what occurred during this time, it’s indeed genocide because the Canadian government employed several harsh methods to oppress and eliminate aboriginal people.

When thinking of genocide most people assume the extreme forms, like the Holocaust or the genocide in Rwanda were millions of innocent people were killed. This is a misconception people hold, it is not only the mass killing of a certain groups of people, but there is a wide array of other acts that fall under genocide.  According to the United Nations definition of genocide, in addition to the killing of members of a group, it includes causing serious mental or bodily harm towards a group, preventing birth in a group, transferring children by force from the group and imposing conditions designed to physically destroy the group of people (Bolen, 2013). Aboriginal people in Canada faced a form of cultural genocide or ethnocide, as Andrew Woolford states in his article. (Woolford, 2009). It can be defined as cultural genocide because the Canadian government in a way wanted to eliminate the beliefs and traditions of aboriginal people and assimilate them into Canadian culture.

Naming the historical treatment of aboriginal people genocide would indeed be an act of demystification or clarifications. This is the case because it falls into several categories of the conventions definition. Firstly, it falls in the category of forcefully transferring children from their homes. This is the case because the government removed 20 000 aboriginal youth from their homes from 1960 to 1980, these children were eventually adopted by white families (Bolen, 2013). Although, this method of genocide does not employ the method of extreme killing, it is still genocide because the government is removing the future of a group to make sure it does not exist in the future. Secondly, the historical treatment fall under the conventions definition of genocide because, the Canadian government ignored the spread of tuberculosis in residential schools and did not provide significant health care to these children. There were also high levels of malnutrition at these residential schools. This is genocide because thousands of young aboriginal children were killed by disease and the government could have taken steps to reduce the spread of disease, but no action was taken. What the government did was an obvious example of disregard for human life. In addition to death at these residential schools, children were sexually, physically and mentally abused. There were also many children that committed suicide. Finally the government passed policies that starved aboriginal people to make room for immigration. This is genocide because several aboriginal died as a result of this policy and it was targeted towards a particular group. Although all these events did not involve direct killing they all constitute genocide because the goal was to eliminate a culture of people.

The outcome of naming these historic events genocide would be bitter-sweet for native communities, this is because it does not change what happen, but it shows the government is taking greater accountability for their horrific actions against innocent aboriginal people. In my opinion it should already be considered genocide because it falls under the UN definition of genocide, what is the point of having such a descriptive definition of genocide if you ignore event that clearly represent genocide. It is an embarrassment in my opinion that the UN has not recognized these events as genocide; Phil Fontaine and Bernie Farber should not have to write letters to the United Nations for this recognition. The United Nations definition either needs to be revised or the horrific treatment that aboriginal people faced should be recognized as the aboriginal genocide.

Monture would also employ the word genocide because after reading her work she takes a strong stance against the historical oppression of aboriginal people and parts of Canadian law. Several innocent people were killed after these targeted government actions to get rid of aboriginal people. She was previously a lawyer who is use to reading the criminal code, which is sets of rules that help govern society. Similarly the UN convention has an outline of what is considered genocide and the actions of the Canadian government clearly fulfil those categories, so Monture after looking at the definition of genocide would agree it was genocide.  To conclude, my belief is the events need to be recognized as genocide. There also needs to be more teachings in schools about what happen at these residential schools. I have taken several Canadian history courses that do not even mention aboriginal people or residential school experiences. There needs to be a greater inclusion in school curriculum’s of this oppression. To this day there is a negative perception towards aboriginal people from some members of society. The media plays a huge role in the thinking society has towards aboriginal people, for example several television programs portray aboriginal people as constantly intoxicated. This is an example of a prejudice or a pre-judgement people have towards aboriginal people before knowing them. Greater knowledge and education of aboriginal traditions and culture would improve this problem. I admit, I had this problem at one time but, after learning about their culture and talking to aboriginal friends the media portrayal of aboriginal people has been removed from my head.

Link – short video of aboriginal experiences at residential schools

References

Bolen, M. (2013, Oct 18). UN urged to declare Canada’s treatment of aboriginals ‘genocide’. The Huffington Post Canada. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/10/18/genocide-first-nations-aboriginals-canada-un_n_4123112.html

Monture, P. (2006). Standing against Canadian law: Naming omissions of race, culture and gender. In E. Comack (Ed.), Locating law (2 ed., pp. 73-93). Halifax: Fernwood Publishing.

Woolford, A. (2009). Ontological destruction: Genocide and Canadian aboriginal peoples. Genocide Studies and Prevention4(1), 81-97. Retrieved from http://aboriginalhealingincanada.com/resources/4-1.1.woolford.pdf

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2 Comments

by | November 3, 2013 · 11:17 pm

2 responses to “Historical treatment of Aboriginal Canadians and Genocide

  1. How do we know that Raphael Lemkin coined the term ‘genocide’?

    You make a clear and well-informed case for the use of the term ‘genocide’ to describe the treatment of aboriginal peoples by the Canadian government.

    Demystification involves challenging the ideological characterization of a particular practice, critiquing dominant understandings and exposing underlying factors that invite an alternative interpretation. You propose that naming the historic events in question genocide would be an act of demystification. To support this proposal, it is important to explain how the dominant / official narrative serves to mystify the underlying truth.

    You note that “In my opinion it should already be considered genocide because it falls under the UN definition of genocide, what is the point of having such a descriptive definition of genocide if you ignore event that clearly represent genocide.”

    This is a great observation. You have hit upon one of the central themes of Critical Legal Studies – the political nature of the law. The law provides a clear set of criteria that must be present for something to be labelled a genocide. However, the decision to recognize this label is not a legal one (in the sense that it is not the outcome of what Weber would describe as a formally rational process) – it is a political decision.

    Question: If the UN definition is substantively accurate (that is, if it really captures the essence of genocide), would revising it not amount to ‘moving the goalposts’?

    Generally, this is a great post – and one that I will recommend to students who are unfamiliar with the topic.

    • I agree with your observation that changing the definition would move the goalposts, but in my opinion consistency is required. You can’t just pick and choose what’s going to be labelled as genocide. Its like me saying what happen in Rwanda was not genocide, there is no logic to this claim because what happen in Rwanda meets the clear requirements of a universal definition of genocide. Similarly the aboriginal treatment meets the requirements of genocide and it is illogical in my opinion to say it was not genocide. Maybe simplifying of the definition will help but, in my opinion the definition is clear and straight forward.

      Thanks for the feedback on the post