History of First Nations Genocide in Canada

The United Nations defines genocide generally as “any act committed with the idea of destroying in whole or in part a national, ethnic, racial or religious group” (United Nations, 2013) and elaborates on this statement to include any of the following acts: “killing members of the group, causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group, deliberately inflicting conditions calculated to physically destroy the group (the whole group or even part of the group), [and/or] forcefully transferring children of the group to another group” (United Nations, 2013). The UN also states that under this convention, there is no immunity from prosecution for nations engaging in practices deemed as genocide (2013).

While Canada prides itself on its reputation as a peacekeeping nation, many unfortunate instances in history have been swept under the rug in order to preserve the public image of a diplomatic, unified state. While the horrific treatment of Indigenous Peoples in Canada is increasingly garnering public attention, the lack of knowledge about these historical events and legislation, which systematically sought to destroy First Nations culture, is still a critical issue in Canadian society. From the Vatican’s Papal Bulls exploited by European monarchs in the 16th century to vehemently misappropriate Indigenous land to the implementation of the Indian Act of 1876 and the Indian Residential School System, Canada’s development and history expressed and continues to express a colonialist stance and Eurocentric priority. To commence discussion, an analysis of the United Nations literature on genocide coupled with synthesis of historical events involving the Indigenous in Canada is necessary.

Regarding the initial, broad definition which states that “an act committed with the idea of destroying in whole or in part a national, ethnic, racial or religious group” as genocide, it is essential to refer to early Western conquest circa the 1500s. Papal Bulls and the Doctrines of Discovery were used by Christian colonizers around the world, to seize land that was not rightfully theirs; monarchs were not only permitted to claim this land as theirs on grounds of being divine Christians, but were actually encouraged to do so employing whatever force necessary (Gardiner, 2013). This intentional attempt to “destroy in whole or in part… a religious group” is evident, as the goal of the European monarchs and crusaders was to globally purge the non-Christian world (Gardiner, 2013). Following initial conquest, North America was bestowed to King George, with the stipulation that Aboriginal land title would be preserved unless otherwise ceded by treaty, sold to the Crown and resold to settlers (Gardiner, 2013). The Royal Proclamation officiated these ‘guidelines’ and claimed to establish purpose of maintaining both European and Aboriginal best interests and unity, when in reality, it initiated colonialist rule over the First Nations Peoples of Canada (Gardiner, 2013). Subsequent acts such as the Gradual Civilization Act of 1857 and the Gradual Enfranchisement Act of 1869 directly sought to destroy the national, ethnic, racial and religious group(s) of First Nations Peoples, by coercively swaying Aboriginal persons to surrender their statuses as Native individuals with the promise of various ‘incentives’ (Gardiner, 2013). Fierce attacks on Indigenous sovereignty, in addition to manipulative legislation that deviously persuaded individuals to abandon one’s cultural identity are a direct assault on a “national…” group. Furthermore, the Indian Act of 1876 was vastly more overarching than previous acts and dictated control over practically any and every small aspect of Aboriginal life, in conjunction with the state’s agenda of aggressive assimilation (Gardiner, 2013). The Indian Act prohibited a multitude of significant Aboriginal cultural practices – an especially notable example being the legal prohibition of the traditional potlatch ceremony: another example of a deliberate attack on Indigenous culture (Gardiner, 2013).

Moreover, the ultimate goal of the Indian Residential School System (1880s – late 1990s) was to “kill the Indian in the child” – a statement that makes direct reference to the broad UN definition in addition to the particular outlined genocide paradigms. Young Aboriginal children were abducted from their parents by the state, and transferred to facilities maintained by religious, European individuals (Gardiner, 2013); this “forceful [transfer of] children of the group to another group” exemplifies the United Nation’s definition of genocide. Furthermore, children were forced to disengage with their First Nations cultural identities by means of appalling punishments in the form of severe emotional, mental, physical and sexual abuse daily (Gardiner, 2013). Children were denied adequate diets and in turn, became extremely malnourished and diseased; additionally, living conditions within the schools were repulsive which also contributed to widespread illness (Gardiner, 2013). According to the UN definitions, this alone would satisfy every single criterion to deem genocide, most specifically “causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group”. Likewise, many First Nations children died at the hands of their captors, either directly or indirectly as a result of the cruel maltreatment and neglect of individuals confined within the ‘schools’, yet another example of the systematic destruction of the Indigenous nation within Canada (Gardiner, 2013).

To readdress the question on the whole, the premeditated and relentless attack on First Nations culture and Peoples within Canada was 100% genocide. It is evident that historically, Canada has taken a variety of shocking approaches with the intention of eliminating not only Aboriginal autonomy, but additionally, Aboriginal culture and Peoples. Early Westerners asserted rule over First Nations Peoples through unjust and violent means all indicative of genocide. While the declaration of these historical instances as ‘genocide’ may be inflammatory or offensive to particular members of society, it is a duty our nation owes to First Nations Peoples; there must be acknowledgment and awareness of the harms and tragedies inflicted upon their communities and families. The pervasive colonist, Western ideology still present in Canada asserts that a mere apology and extra funding is ‘enough’ or in some cases, ‘too much’ in terms of remedial measures for First Nations peoples in response to the aforementioned events. I argue that while potentially provocative, labeling the acute, ill treatment of Indigenous Peoples over an extended period of time as ‘genocide’ is completely accurate and necessary. The recognition of the First Nations genocide in Canada would be an act of demystification, as it provides clarification regarding significant historical events that have since been progressively distorted and omitted from public discourse, as they have not traditionally been accepted in accord with the hegemonic Eurocentric stance of much of North America. Acknowledging these injustices and engaging in this ‘consciousness-raising’ provides opportunities to better analyze and comprehend how the historical context and treatment of Aboriginal Peoples in Canada has contributed to the current heightened rates of abuse, victimization and overrepresentation of Indigenous Peoples within the Criminal Justice System today. Rejecting the status quo approach of the past by actively engaging in critical dialogue regarding the extensive history of First Nations inequality and wrongs in Canada is an essential step in movement towards promoting equality and justice, and the deconstruction of existing social hierarchies.


Gardiner, Paige. (2013). Indigenous People of Canada and Structural Factors. Canada.

United Nations. (2013). Convention on The Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The United Nations. Retrieved from http://www.un.org/cyberschoolbus/treaties/genocide.asp



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3 responses to “History of First Nations Genocide in Canada

  1. duck19

    I completely agree. Europeans systematically and deliberately sought out to eliminate an entire culture, because it was different from their own. I understand the argument that it takes this acknowledgement of ‘genocide’ for society to react to the wrong-doings of a Canadian culture. However there should also be the acknowledgement of future costs indigenous people endured. Their suffering does not stop at the individuals who experience this reformation, rather it excelled to future generations. Society has made it acceptable to take indigenous people’s land, as well as place value that is not comparable. Once individuals are able to fully understand the cost that indigenous people payed, labeling this victimization and abuse has no affect.

  2. This is a detailed, well-informed post. Thanks for making this contribution to the blog.

    You mention Canada’s colonialist legacy. This is an important concept in socio-legal studies – in fact, there is an entire stream of post-colonial legal theory. Pavlich (2011) introduces some of this material in his chapter on Contested Sovereignties, Violence, and Law. This would be a great body of work to draw on for your paper.

    You conclude that Canada’s historical treatment of First Nations culture and Peoples indeed fits the definition of genocide. The question then become – if the technical applicability of this legal definition is evident, why has it not been applied? There are, of course, many ways to respond to this question – and you do a good job of pointing to the inherently political nature of this issue.

    In thinking about the politics of recognition at work in this case, I find it useful to draw on Stan Cohen’s research on ‘States of Denial’. Cohen is interested in the politics of collective denial and the nature of public campaigns that seek to have suffering acknowledged and acted upon. He describes several forms of denial – literal denial (“nothing happened”), interpretive denial (“what happened was something else”), and implicatory denial (“what happened is justified”). I think that we can use the concept of interpretive denial to make sense of the debate over the applicability of the concept of ‘genocide’ in this case.

    As Cohen notes (in Human Rights Quarterly 18.3, 1996):

    “Greater international visibility and transparency have made the more radical forms of literal denial more difficult to sustain. Even the most repressive governments–more dependent on global economic controls and exposed by the collapse of Cold War alliances–are less likely to ignore all criticism completely or to issue crude denials.
    The most common alternative is to admit the “raw” facts–yes, something did happen: people were killed, injured, or detained without trial–but to deny the interpretive framework that is placed on these events. No, what happened was not really torture, genocide, or extra-judicial killing, but something else. The harmful behavior is cognitively reframed and then reallocated to a different, less pejorative class of events.


    Such evasions are deployed because some categorizations are so pejorative, stigmatic, and universally condemned that they cannot be openly admitted or defended. Assuming that it cannot resort to literal denial, no government will concede publicly that it is responsible for systematic torture, political massacres, and genocide. Even those governments advancing the strongest possible moral justifications for their actions will not normally acknowledge that what they are justifying belongs to these extreme categories. They have to reframe and rename in order to contest the imputed meaning of their policy–what it looks like to the outside observer–and replace this with another meaning.”

  3. pgardiner

    Thank you for the supplementary literature – I will definitely take a closer look at that when formulating my paper. I would argue that in the case of the Indigenous Genocide in North America, there are examples of all levels of denial: ‘literal, interpretive, and implicatory’ depending on who you ask. Some members of society to this date will still, either out of blatant ignorance or lack of awareness, make the assertion that there is no way that these things could have/did happen. Others, and probably from more of a political standpoint, skew the story and the retelling and passing down over generations does not do the history justice in terms of accuracy. And additionally, I am sure, that while controversial there are individuals out there who hold the opinion that this was merely ‘conquest’, ‘it happens all the time’ globally, and that essentially, the Europeans’ actions were and are justified. All are unfortunate, as they do little to acknowledge history for what it was – which was a gross misuse of domination and power. It is obvious that the distinction of ‘genocide’ would be stigmatizing for a nation like Canada who promotes its diverse, peaceful reputation; however, being that the historical events and legislation match the definitions of genocide perfectly, it would be irresponsible to view the above mentioned actions in any other way.