Historical Treatment of Aboriginals and Genocide


Genocide is defined as the “deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial, caste, religious, or national group”.  Genocide is particularly linked with World War II and the mass execution of Jews.  However, the United Nations definition indicates that “causing serious mental or bodily harm towards a group” is an integral component of genocide.  Therefore, when looking at Aboriginals and their history, genocide is represented by colonialism through the exploring, conquering and settling on land.  With the introduction of regulations and policies to “civilize” the Indian, the government caused “serious mental or bodily harm”, therefore the historical treatment of Aboriginals should be legally defined as genocide.

As Europeans arrived in North America, they viewed Aboriginals as being inferior to them in several different ways.  Although Aboriginals had their own governance systems, laws, and ways of living, they were dehumanized and labelled as being savages or beasts by European settlers.  This labelling was a way to rationalize European expansion and exploitation of Aboriginal peoples and their territory.  European westernized ways of thinking assumed that anything non-European represented backward thinking.  Europeans who were directly involved in the fur trade saw and the settling of the land saw that the Aboriginals were a potential threat to any gain of profit or colonization.

Millions of Aboriginals died as they were purposely given blankets that contained small pox (Thorner, 2003).  Aboriginals had never been in contact with these diseases; therefore they did not develop any immunity to them. Diseases that were brought over by Europeans included tuberculosis, measles, venereal disease, influenza and small pox. As a result, these epidemics spread inland through encounters with Europeans and through trade (Thorner, 2003).  Several million Aboriginal people were infected and eventually died.  Therefore one can argue this was a way to reduce the Aboriginal population, so Europeans could expand further into Canada without as much resistance.

Moreover, as the Indian Act was introduced, Aboriginals were pushed to assimilate.  Aboriginals became defined, as Indians were seen as being of status or non-status.  However, several incentives and regulations were introduced that pushed Aboriginals to change their status.  Incentives such as the right to vote were developed through systems of enfranchisement.  Moreover, individuals would lose their status if they became doctors, lawyers and clergy men or even if they acquired a university degree (Monchalin & Marques, 2013).  As Aboriginals were placed on reserves, they were not able to leave the reserve without permission of an Indian Agent.  These men resided over the reserve, and were able to enforce laws that prohibited Potlatches and Sun Dances.  Although these rituals were an integral part of Aboriginal culture, they were banned from reserves.

The introduction of residential schools was an instrumental part of Canadian history, which many have argued was a cultural genocide for Aboriginal children.  These children were forcibly removed from their families and taken to residential schools.  They were required to remove their traditional clothing and to cut their hair.  In addition, they were given English or French names as their more traditional names were not acceptable.  These children were severely and cruelly punished if they spoke their mother tongue.  The education they received was not adequate, and it usually focused on labour training and domestic work (Chansonneuve, 2005).  As a result, individuals who survived these schools were not able to find work that was suitable for further advancement as their abilities were limited.

These children were physically, sexually, emotionally and mentally abused.  They were denied a safe family environment and subjected to severe violence. They were denied the teachings of their parents and of their culture.  As a result, they were not able to understand or acquire the values, attitudes, or beliefs of Aboriginal culture.  Several individuals did not acquire life skills or parenting skills which has impacted their children and their children’s children (Monchalin & Marques, 2013).

Therefore, several individuals turned to substances such as drugs and alcohol to overcome many of these experiences.  This substance abuse has increased crime rates as there is a direct link with alcohol and crime.  Moreover, these individuals are more prone to commit acts of violence, as they have been traumatized by their experiences (Monchalin & Marques, 2013).  As a result, there is a widespread over presentation of Aboriginals in Canadian prisons.  In addition, Aboriginals who rely on substances were more likely to commit suicide (Chansonneuve, 2005).  The rates of suicide amongst Aboriginals are higher than the general population (Howard, 2010). Other factors that are associated with residential schools include disconnected families, families with single parents, and family violence (Monchalin & Marques, 2013).  Family violence and increased rates of poverty have been an instrumental factor in the removal of Aboriginal children from their families.  This then creates more of a disconnect from Aboriginal culture as these children are placed in foster homes.

Thus, through colonization, aggressive assimilation and residential schools, the treatment of Aboriginals should be defined legally as genocide.


Howard, C. (2010). Suicide and Aboriginal Youth. Sudbury: Laurentian University.

Thorner, T. (2003). A Few Acres of Snow. Toronto, Canada: Broadview Press.

Chansonneauve, Deborah. (2005). Reclaiming Connections: Understanding Residential School Trauma among Aborginal People.  Section I I: Residential Schools. P.33-48.  Ottawa, ON: Aboriginal Healing Foundation.

Monchalin, L, Marques, O. (2013) Preventing Crime and Poor Health Among Aboriginal People: The Potential for Preventative Programming. First Peoples Child & Family Review, 7(2), 112-29.



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3 responses to “Historical Treatment of Aboriginals and Genocide

  1. Where does your definition of genocide come from?

    You do a good job of relating your discussion of genocide (in relation to aboriginal peoples) to the broader phenomenon of colonialism. If this is a topic of interest, note that we will return to it when we study ‘contested sovereignties, violence, and law’ (Pavlich Ch. 10).

    Question: What was the rationale for the institution of legal prohibitions on potlatches and Sun Dances?

    Part of the food for thought question for this week invites authors to consider the outcome or the effect of naming the mistreatment of aboriginal peoples by Canadian governments as genocide. What do you think about this? What would be the effect? Additionally, how do you think that Monture (2006) might have responded to the call to employ the term ‘genocide’?

    This is an informative post. I look forward to your reply to my questions!

    • studentoflaw1001

      The definition of genocide was found on dictionairy.com, however I also looked at the definition on the Canada.gc.
      The rationale of the prohibition of sun dances and potlatches was to assimilate Aboriginals. A key component of potlatches and Aboriginal culture was the sharing and giving away of wealth. In Aboriginal culture, status was measured by how much an individual could give away. This was a problem as it went against the values of a westernized capital society. Therefore, prohibitions were created to limit this behaviour and instill westernized values to these individuals.
      Monture would agree that the historical treatment of Aboriginals was genocide, as she explores the effects of colonialism and the traumatic experiences these individuals have gone through. Moreover, she discusses the impacts of colonialism and how it still effects Aboriginals today, as they are over represented in prison, continue to rely on substances and women are more prone to acts of violence. Therefore, Monture would indicate that this treatment was genocide if she looked at the definition provided by the United Nations.
      The effect of naming this mistreatment of Aboriginals as genocide, creates recognition of the severe measures that were taken by the Canadian government. However, this recognition can be seen negatively as it serves as a reminder of the harsh reality that several of these individuals went through. This could be seen as a problem as many of these people are alive, have children or grandchildren that were effected by this. Moreover, it can downgrade the prestige that is associated with Canada, as Canada is seen as a multicultural society.
      The Olympics that were held in Vancouver, promoted the theme that romanticized the relationship of Aboriginals and the rest of the population. This was represented with the involvement and ceremonial dances that were done by Aboriginal people. However, Monture would argue that the beliefs and values that are associated with colonialism, which creates an inferiority amongst Aboriginals, still exists.
      I think this matter should get more recognition, as several individuals are not aware with the problems that were and are associated with colonialism and residential schools. A contemporary issue involving racial minorities during a student orientation activity, in which a group of UBC students participated in a “Pochahontas” chant that was seen to be racially offensive. These individuals were quoted chanting “Pocah, Pocah, Pocah, Pocahontas – white man took our land”. In addition, they were also heard chanting “”Pocahontass, ass, ass, ass”. How this relates to the Monture and the issue at hand, is that the history of Aboriginals is overlooked by education systems. It also demonstrates how Aboriginal women are categorized and perceived. It also recognises that high school curriculum seldom covers issues of Aboriginals and this is represented as UBC students were the ones who created these chants.

      • I appreciate the detailed reply. The UBC chant is worth thinking about.

        It is important to locate the chants in relation to a broader ideological framework that functions to construct a distinction between ‘the past’ and ‘the present’. We see this in relation to many forms of discrimination. On the one hand, as you point out, the chant is indicative of a general lack of awareness of the history of aboriginal peoples in Canada. In other words, it is a reflection of ignorance.
        At a deeper level, though, I think that it is a reflection of a particular ideological framing that simultaneously:
        1. Acknowledges past wrongs;
        2. Discursively constructs them as the actions of a different time, and in so doing;
        3. Absolves ‘us’, in the present day, of any responsibilities associated with the wrongs in question
        We see evidence of this ideological framing in chants that make light of past atrocities (consider the prevalence of ‘blackface’ costumes at college frat parties), and – perhaps more insidiously – in narratives that state that “the past is the past. People should just move on”.
        When I hear about activities like the UBC chant, I interpret it as indicative of a worldview that absolves people of responsibility for past and present systemic injustices and, in so doing, invites these acts to be treated as the punchline of a joke.