Cultural genocide.

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This article was published 2/6/2015 (2213 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.


Cultural genocide.

It is not a new term. And yet, thanks to the exhaustive work of the Residential School Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the elegant guidance of its chair Justice Murray Sinclair, this will be the context for future discussions about Canada’s treatment of aboriginal peoples.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission Chair Justice Murray Sinclair


Truth and Reconciliation Commission Chair Justice Murray Sinclair

The TRC’s long-awaited executive summary report, to be released this morning in Winnipeg, pulls no punches when it comes to categorizing the experience of 150,000 aboriginal students and their families. The federal government’s Residential Schools policy was a deliberate and systematic attempt to eradicate a culture to ease the seizure of land and resources and limit any future financial liabilities.

"For over a century, the central goals of Canada’s Aboriginal policy were to eliminate Aboriginal governments; ignore Aboriginal rights, terminate the Treaties; and, through a process of assimilation, cause Aboriginal peoples to cease to exist as distinct legal, social, cultural, religious and racial entities in Canada," the introduction to the report states. "The establishment and operation of residential schools were a central element of this policy, which can best be described as a ‘cultural genocide.’"

The term genocide was first used in 1944 by human rights lawyer Raphael Lemkin, who worked through his life to define it and see it enshrined in international law. Lemkin was, of course, reacting to the Nazi Holocaust and the mass killings of Jews and other ethnic and cultural peoples in Europe.

However, even in his original work, Lemkin saw the need to a cultural component to genocide.

Over time, those who study genocide and human rights have identified various forms of genocide: physical genocide (mass killings), biological genocide (destruction of a group’s reproductive capacity) and cultural genocide. The TRC report describes this as the "destruction of those structures and practices that allow the group to continue as a group."

The report goes on to discuss in great detail the actions of the federal government in committing cultural genocide: seizure of land; forcibly removing people from one area and resettling them elsewhere; banning the use of traditional languages; persecuting spiritual leaders and banning spiritual practices; confiscating and destroying objects of spiritual value.

"In its dealing with Aboriginal people, Canada did all of these things," the report stated.

Of course, making a determination of genocide was not within the mandate of the TRC. However, given the scope of the work — the most intensive, detailed examination of the impact of the residential school system — it is hardly surprising that Sinclair and his fellow commissioners came to this finding. In other words, after careful reading of the results of the TRC’s five-year odyssey, it is really impossible not to reach the same conclusion.

Sinclair, and others, certainly telegraphed their intentions in the days leading up to the report’s official release. For nearly two years, Sinclair has been using the term genocide in media interviews to describe the residential school system. As well, Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin used the term "cultural genocide" to describe residential schools in a speech just last week that created national headlines.

Even with all this careful spadework, the introduction of the term cultural genocide to the context of the residential school experience is bound to create a thorny national debate.

It is expected that many different types of groups, for many different reasons, will try to stop any use of the word genocide form discussion of residential schools. On one end of the spectrum, you will have Canadians who simply cannot accept that their country should be mentioned in the same breath as Germany, Rwanda or Cambodia. Even use of the qualifying word "cultural" will not provide any comfort in this regard.

On the other end of the debate there are Canadians with deep connections to the worst cases of physical genocide who believe it is a word that should be reserved solely for instances of mass killings and other violent atrocities.

What all Canadians need to understand is that Lemkin clearly anticipated all of these complications when he defined the various components of genocide. It was his opinion that there are various approaches to the extermination of an entire people, some more subtle than others, but all of them dedicated to the same vile goal.

The TRC’s use of the term cultural genocide should spark a national debate. And, one would hope, a national day of reckoning.

You can’t remedy a mistake unless you fully admit what it is you did. For the sake of all our citizens, Canada needs to fully admit what it did.

Dan Lett

Dan Lett

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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