Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, has declared that Canada's Indian residential school system was an act of genocide. This statement will disturb many Canadians. Some will say that our collective soul-searching over the Indian residential schools has gone on long enough, or too long, and that indigenous people should just let go of the past and move on.
But Justice Sinclair was right to make this declaration. Acknowledging Canada's responsibility for genocide is necessary to heal the great harm done by this traumatic historic event. It is necessary both for indigenous peoples, and for non-indigenous Canadians as well.
The Indian residential school system, in both its stated intent and its observable effects, meets the definition of genocide specified in the United Nations Genocide Convention of 1948. Article 2 of that convention defines genocide as certain acts "committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such," and includes in the specified acts, "forcibly transferring children of the group to another group."
This was the avowed intention of the Indian residential school system: to "kill the Indian in the child." In the words of Duncan Campbell-Scott, one of the chief architects of residential school policy, "Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic, and there is no Indian question and no Indian Department. ... I want to get rid of the Indian problem."
Genocide does not necessarily require physical extermination or mass killing -- although we should remember that thousands of children did die preventable deaths from harsh living conditions at the Indian residential schools. Genocide is the intentional destruction of a cultural group.
Membership in a cultural group, participation in a collective identity, is part of our social nature and is necessary to human well-being. It can be difficult for "white" Canadians to perceive this necessity, because usually we can take our collective identity for granted. When we can take our collective identity for granted then it's easy to believe that it doesn't play a big part in our lives; but if that identity were taken away, we would quickly see how vital it really is.
Through the Indian residential schools, the Canadian government tried to erase indigenous cultural identity from children and to destroy Indigenous groups as such. Along the way, generations of children were taught to hate themselves; they were physically beaten, raped, starved, put to work and injured or killed in workplace accidents, and allowed to die of infectious diseases that could have been prevented, among other sufferings.
This process had devastating effects on the collective life of indigenous nations. These collective effects are what make the Indian residential school system genocidal.
Indigenous people have been working very hard to heal from this historical trauma and to rebuild their communities, their families and their spirits. They have already made remarkable progress. But it will take generations to heal from this.
Non-indigenous Canadians are still largely unaware of or in denial about the full genocidal extent of these policies, which were carried out in their name and for their ostensible benefit. The federal government has apologized for specific abuses and "failures" of the residential school system. But it has not acknowledged or apologized for its openly genocidal policy.
Denial hurts the victim of a harm, but it also hurts the perpetrator. When we condone violence done to others, we also implicitly condone violence done to ourselves. The Indian residential schools are a thorn of violence embedded deep in the Canadian soul. To pull out that thorn, we must first acknowledge its presence. This acknowledgment will be painful, but it is necessary and ultimately will be beneficial.
Christopher Powell is an assistant professor in the department of sociology at the University of Manitoba.