Sorry About That!: A Very Canadian Genocide
We occupied the stations where they used to hunt and fish thus reducing them to want, while we took no trouble to indemnify them so that doubtless many of them perished by famine; we also treated them with hostility and cruelty and many were slain by our own people as by the Micmac Indians who were allowed to harass them.
– Great Britain, Report of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Aboriginal Tribes (1837)
Shaa-naan-dithit, the last surviving Beothuk, died eight years before Britain’s Parliamentary Committee released their report. In 1903 her grave was lost forever during construction of St. John’s railway.
The term genocide (coming from the Greek: genos meaning race or kind and the Latin: cida meaning cutter or killer) was created by the U.S. émigré lawyer Rafal Lemkin. Born to a Jewish family in Belarus he lost 49 family members in the holocaust. Only his brother Elias and Elias’ family survived and in 1948 he successfully brought them to Montreal Canada.
Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aimed at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.
-Lemkin, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe (1944)
The unintentional consequence of British policy – the physical genocide of the Beothuks – developed into a Canadian policy of intentional cultural genocide. The primary tool for achieving the goal of extinguishing Aboriginal identity and assimilating Canada’s indigenous population was residential schools.
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 establishment and operation of residential schools were a central element of this policy, which can best be described as “cultural genocide.” … Land is seized, and populations are forcibly transferred and their movement is restricted. Languages are banned. Spiritual leaders are persecuted, spiritual practices are forbidden, and objects of spiritual value are confiscated and destroyed. And, most significantly to the issue at hand, families are disrupted to prevent the transmission of cultural values and identity from one generation to the next.
In its dealing with Aboriginal people, Canada did all these things.
Canada asserted control over Aboriginal land. In some locations, Canada negotiated Treaties with First Nations; in others, the land was simply occupied or seized. The negotiation of Treaties, while seemingly honourable and legal, was often marked by fraud and coercion, and Canada was, and remains, slow to implement their provisions and intent.1 On occasion, Canada forced First Nations to relocate their reserves from agriculturally valuable or resource-rich land onto remote and economically marginal reserves.2 Without legal authority or foundation, in the 1880s Canada instituted a “pass system” that was intended to confine First Nations people to their reserves.3
Canada replaced existing forms of Aboriginal government with relatively powerless band councils whose decisions it could override and whose leaders it could depose.4 In the process, it disempowered Aboriginal women, who had held significant influence and powerful roles in many First Nations, including the Mohawks, the Carrier, and Tlingit.5 Canada denied the right to participate fully in Canadian political, economic, and social life to those Aboriginal people who refused to abandon their Aboriginal identity.6 Canada outlawed Aboriginal spiritual practices, jailed Aboriginal spiritual leaders, and confiscated sacred objects.7
And, Canada separated children from their parents, sending them to residential schools. This was done not to educate them, but primarily to break their link to their culture and identity. In justifying the government’s residential school policy, Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, told the House of Commons in 1883: When the school is on the reserve the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write his habits, and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly pressed on myself, as the head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.8 \\
These measures were part of a coherent policy to eliminate Aboriginal people as distinct peoples and to assimilate them into the Canadian mainstream against their will. Deputy Minister of Indian Affairs Duncan Campbell Scott outlined the goals of that policy in 1920, when he told a parliamentary committee that “our object is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic.”9 These goals were reiterated in 1969 in the federal government’s Statement on Indian Policy (more often referred to as the “White Paper”), which sought to end Indian status and terminate the Treaties that the federal government had negotiated with First Nations.10
The Canadian government pursued this policy of cultural genocide because it wished to divest itself of its legal and financial obligations to Aboriginal people and gain control over their land and resources. If every Aboriginal person had been “absorbed into the body politic,” there would be no reserves, no Treaties, and no Aboriginal rights. or 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 establishment and operation of residential schools were a central element of this policy, which can best be described as “cultural genocide.”
– Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future, Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.
Many of the residential schools were sites of institutionalized child abuse and neglect where the students were prey to ongoing sexual and physical abuse. The Commission documented that approximately 6,000 students died in these places. Aboriginal children in a Canadian residential school were more likely to die than a Canadian serving in World War II.
Three of the priests who ran the Williams Lake residential school where Rose Mary Roper worked were eventually charged with 23 counts of sexual assault. Two young boys committed suicide and graves have been found on the property indicating undocumented and unreported deaths of other students.