This past Thursday, a motion by NDP MP Leah Gazan asking the Canadian government to formally recognize the policy of Indian residential schools as genocide was defeated when it could not receive unanimous consent by parliamentarians.


This past Thursday, a motion by NDP MP Leah Gazan asking the Canadian government to formally recognize the policy of Indian residential schools as genocide was defeated when it could not receive unanimous consent by parliamentarians.

Gazan, the daughter of both Holocaust and residential school survivors, sought to end the "debate" of the term, calling it "another violent act, particularly against survivors."

This wasn’t a matter of politics. Earlier in the week, this same group of politicians voted unanimously to support an NDP motion demanding the federal government stop taking Indigenous children and residential school survivors to court and expedite investigations on unmarked burial sites at residential schools.

While some Liberal cabinet ministers abstained from voting on that motion, none stood in it’s way – unlike Thursday’s vote.

It’s not as though the non-binding motion would have suddenly changed the direction of Indigenous policy in Canada – being more gesture than official government policy.

In fact, if it had passed, Gazan’s motion would have brought the government more in line with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s June 2019 acceptance of the findings of the final report of the Inquiry Into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls, which found Canada guilty of genocide.

In the official record, therefore, Canada accepts that it had intent to and performed actions to kill Indigenous women and girls, cause serious bodily or mental harm, impose measures to prevent births and deliberately inflict "conditions to bring about a group's physical destruction in whole or in part" – according to the definition of the term.

While residential schools clearly did all of these things, there is a final criteria in genocide: "forcibly transferring children from one group to another group."

This should make the use of the term undebatable, but yet, in Canada, it’s debated.

During Thursday’s vote it’s unsure who disagreed, since there is no voting record for motions requiring unanimous consent. In a tweet, Gazan accused Conservative MP John Barlow as the culprit, Barlow refused to comment.

Gazan also later accused the Liberals of refusing to ratify the motion too (although this was denied by Liberal party whip Mark Holland).

In the end, it doesn’t matter.

All this proves is that what happened at residential schools is still a matter for debate — even though hundreds of pages of research, thousands of first-hand accounts, and the very international definition of genocide seems to fit clearly what happened.

The sticking point for most Canadians — besides deniers, who argue that residential school policy was necessary and claims of violence are overblown (all widely preposterous claims) — has not to do with the undeniably violent actions in the schools but the intent of them.

Conservative leader Erin O’Toole, for example, told a group of students last December that the residential school system was a "horrible program" but "meant to try and provide education."

After public outcry, O’Toole walked back these comments a day later, saying education was not the purpose but "to remove children from the influence of their homes, families, traditions and cultures."

O’Toole, though, was simply saying what many Canadians believe: that Canadian schools are places of education and not places of abuse, disease, and death.

Maybe for many Canadians this is the former, but for residential school students it was the latter.

The debate around intent is what forced the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to use the term "cultural genocide" to describe residential schools in the final 2015 report.

Simply put, Canada has claimed to only be providing education and, if anything, blames violence on the infamous "bad apple" excuse: church leaders, school staff, or whomever else.

The recent revelations to Canadians (note I didn’t say Indigenous peoples) of unmarked, forgotten, and even covered-up graves of residential school students are proof that residential schools were places of rampant assaults, starvation, sickness, and homicide.

At the very least: they were places where the deaths of children were a common circumstance.

Who legally mandated school attendance? Who paid for the system? Who denied the reports by government investigators such as Dr. Peter Bryce, who told Canadian policymakers for years that "rampant death" was happening in the schools?

If a person knows a human being is being killed somewhere, and that person does nothing about it or, worse yet, is responsible for more going to that murderous place, a court would find that person as guilty as the person who pulled the trigger.

Canada perpetrated genocide through residential schools via clear intent and action. Period.

Two weeks ago the unmarked gravesites of residential school students were found using ground penetrating radar in Kamloops.

Last week it was in Brandon.

This past weekend, media covered two more sites of unmarked graves at residential schools in Saskatchewan and there are dozens more First Nations calling for searches throughout the country.

Let’s stop the debate.

If we accept the truth, maybe one day we might even get to reconciliation, but not till then.

Niigaan Sinclair

Niigaan Sinclair

Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.

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