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