At first I found the accusation that Canada committed genocide to be incredulous. I don’t recall Canadians marching into villages and hacking people to death with machetes as happened in Rwanda. I don’t remember Canadians rounding up families and send them to gas chambers as happened with the Nazis.
Yet, when the chief justice of Canada’s Supreme Court and the head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission charge Canada with cultural genocide, I have to pay attention.
Strange as it may seem, Prime Minister Harper helped me understand what cultural genocide is. He’s the one who condemned it in Turkey and Russia.
Mr. Harper did not hesitate to call what the Ottomans did to the Armenians as cultural genocide. Doug Saunders makes the comparison (Globe and Mail, June 6, 2015):
“There is at least a functional similarity (albeit at a slower and less lethal scale) to the acts committed by the Ottomans against Armenians on Turkish territory in 1915: Those acts involved the mass, violent uprooting, force-marched relocation and forced-labour institutionalization of an entire people, with considerable disregard for life (as well as some considerable acts of outright murder).”
What happened in Russia was similar too. The Soviets forced families into collectives to grow food for Russia even as those families died of starvation. Children were removed from families and stripped of their language and culture. Sounds familiar.
Our first prime minister, John A. Macdonald made it clear what his intentions were when removing 150,000 children from their families and sending them to residential schools; it was to “acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.”
These institutions were more along the lines of British child-labour reformatories than they were like schools. When children were unable to grow their own food, 4,000 died of starvation and disease.
“In other words, Canada’s crime fits into the historical pattern of a certain sort of genocidal act,” continues Saunders, “one that has been recognized and condemned by Ottawa when it has taken place in other countries. By acknowledging the validity of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s label, Ottawa would gain credibility in applying it to other countries.”
Depressing as it may be to live in a country that committed cultural genocide, there is a way forward. It starts in the distant past, before the 1870s when the shoe was on the other foot. Back then when native people were in the majority, European explorers would not have survived without the generosity of their hosts. Newcomers were not herded into camps and their wild British ways whipped out of them in lessons taught to the tune of the hickory stick.
Canada needs to return the favour shown by our hosts. It almost happened with the Kelowna Accord in 2005 when then Prime Minister Paul Martin reached a $5 billion deal with first nation leaders to improve the health and education.
Former Canadian Assembly of First Nations Chief Phil Fontaine called the Kelowna Accord a breakthrough for his people but calls for implementation have fallen on deaf ears. Our PM has defined what cultural genocide is by his condemnation of it in other countries. It’s time we dealt with it in our own back yard.