The importance of a word: Taking the “culture” out of Canada’s “cultural genocide”

On April 26th, Paul Martin, Canada’s Prime Minister from 2003 to 2006, announced that he believed that Canada committed cultural genocide. He was referring to the systematic abuse perpetrated against Canada’s Indigenous populations by the residential school system that was meant to civilize these groups.

I strongly disagree with this assessment. Canada did not commit “cultural genocide.” Based on the definition of the crime provided by the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, Canada committed genocide, not “cultural genocide.” The Genocide Convention is a widely accepted and respected international treaty. Its legitimacy has been acknowledged by 142 states via either accession, succession, or ratification. Furthermore, its terms have been used in practice to prosecute those suspected of the crime thus cementing the Convention’s status as a respect-worthy piece of international law.

According to the Convention, which was ratified by Canada in 1952, “genocide means any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

Canada’s residential school system did this.

Canada’s actions mirror several elements of this definition, including causing serious bodily or mental harm to Indigenous peoples, and forcibly removing Indigenous children from their parents and communities.  Besides the fact that starvation was used as a weapon to force treaties and reserves on several populations, the goal of Canada’s Indian policy, centered around the Indian Act, was meant to eliminate Indigenous peoples as distinct peoples (read: Canada intended to destroy a national group). Reserves were not meant to be permanent, but protective shells that would eventually be broken up into individual land holdings, Indigenous languages were to be extinguished, and religious and cultural practices eliminated (by force where necessary).  The Department of Indian Affairs had two goals, to assimilate Indigenous peoples (against their wishes) and destroy their identities, and to save money – these were often incompatible, and it was the victory of the latter that prevented the total success of the former.

To label these policies collectively as “cultural” genocide belittles the violence visited on Indigenous peoples, especially their children, through residential schools and the sixties scoop of Indigenous children – where children were forcibly removed from their parents and adopted into white families.

Indian Residential Schools represent an important piece of the legislative regime centered around the Indian Act, meant to assimilate Indigenous peoples into the Canadian social, political and economic system. In the mid 19th century, through treaty negotiations many chiefs and Indigenous negotiators sought to ensure their children would be educated and their people would be adequately trained to function effectively in both the white and Indigenous worlds.[1]   Government officials felt the on-reserve “teaching wigwams” were ineffective in assimilation – that “the influence of the wigwam was stronger than the influence of the school”[2]  – and looked instead to the American Carlisle School as a prototype for Indigenous boarding schools that would more effectively “kill the Indian in the child”[3].

Over time the school system became coercive: in 1894-5 attendance was made mandatory; in the 1920 revision to the Indian Act, children between 7 and 15 could be forcibly removed from their parents for school.[4] During the schools’ more than a century existence, 150,000 Indigenous children passed through the gates of the 80-odd institutions scattered in generally remote places, more often by force than by choice, and increasingly without any meaningful form of parental consent.[5] This coercion highlights a simple fact; rather than bringing Indigenous communities more into the Canadian fold, the workings of Indian residential schools did much harm and little good for its targeted population.

The schools were frequently located at a significant distance from the children’s families, but also from society more generally, and this isolation, combined with lenient attitudes, allowed sexual predators to use the system to procure young victims.[6]  Physical and emotional abuses were frequent experiences for students – indeed many students were subject to frequent invectives on the backwardness of their culture, language and identity.[7] To be in these schools was to be presumed inferior and in need of dramatic, immediate intervention and isolation from your community. The buildings and living conditions themselves were unsanitary, and at least 3,000 children died on school premises, most from tuberculosis.[8]

In the post-war period, Canadians aware of their country’s policies became increasingly uncomfortable with government actions (a discomfort some historians have attributed to unsettling similarities between the Nazis’ policies and that of their own government).[9]  Between 1946 and 1971 the federal government explored multiple options for changing its Indian policy.  As the welfare state expanded in Canada, especially as the responsibility of the provinces, governments raised the question of who was responsible for Indigenous children in schooling and in care – and responded with outsider control and removal. In what is colloquially referred to as the Sixties Scoop, provincial officials “quite literally scooped” Indigenous children out of their community “on the slightest pretext” to be placed in white care and eventually white adoption.[10] Therefore, even as the residential schools were loosing popularity as a form, their underlying principle of assimilation and removal remained core to government approaches to Indigenous peoples.

After a pronounced Indigenous backlash to a plan to end treaties and assimilate status Indians full-stop, and a significant set of court victories in the 1970s established treaties’ enduring legal status, assimilation was no longer the acceptable and accepted policy goal.[11]  Closing the schools was a gradual process: some were transferred to Indigenous control beginning in the 1970s, and although new federal funding ended in 1986, the last school officially closed in 1998.[12]  In the same year, the Aboriginal Healing Foundation received $350 million for residential-school related projects, the first of many such funds, projects and initiatives meant to address the outcomes of this failure.

We should not mistake Indian Affairs’ ineptitude for benevolence. There was a basic conflict between cost savings and full cultural assimilation, which in concurrence with the surprising resilience of many Indigenous people, and Indigenous communities means they have survived, despite others best efforts. That is not to say those communities are not deeply scarred – that is clearly in evidence in the witnesses at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission across the country – and those scars are the result of our policy trying to achieve its goal, not unforeseen or emergent consequences.

In summary, the Canadian government engaged in practices that could legitimately be called genocide and, furthermore, the government continued to do so even after it had ratified the Genocide Convention. Given that Canada seems to have committed acts of genocide while party to the Convention, calling the genocide anything less than a genocide is both ridiculous and pernicious. It is ridiculous since there is no such thing as “cultural genocide.” It is a term that has been largely restricted to academic studies as a means to classify and to better understand the phenomenon of genocide. “Cultural genocide”, however, is not a crime since there are no laws addressing the issue and therefore should never be confused with genocide. And, it is pernicious since it trivializes the experiences of those who suffered through the violence thereby victimizing the victims a second time.

While I applaud Paul Martin for publicly highlighting that Canada committed atrocities in the recent past, I do not condone the (granted, most likely unintended) watering down of the issue. All Canadians, including Mr. Martin, must recognize and come to term with the idea that Canada – a state that prides itself on the high place it accords respect for human rights in its domestic and foreign policies – committed an unconscionable crime.

Stephanie Soiffer is a PhD Candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

Katharine McGowan is a post-doctoral fellow at Social Innovation Generation at the University Of Waterloo.


[1] Miller, 1996

[2] Castellano et al, 2008: 52

[3] Milloy, 1996

[4] Miller, 1990; Castellano et al, 2008; Haig-Brown, 1988

[5] MacDonald& Hudson, 2012; Miller, 1990

[6] Haig-Brown, 1988; Miller, 1996

[7] Cairns, 2003; Carter, 1999; Ing, 1991

[8] Cairns, 2003

[9] Millon, 2000; Leslie, 2002; Plant, 2009

[10] Johnston, 1983: 8

[11] Leslie, 2002; Coates, 2008

[12] Miller, 1996; Castellano et al, 2008

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