Canada Day Statement: The History of Violence Against Indigenous Peoples Fully Warrants the Use of The Word “Genocide”

Published on June 30, 2021

1 July 2021

The Canadian Historical Association, which represents 650 professional historians from across the country, including the main experts on the long history of violence and dispossession Indigenous peoples experienced in what is today Canada, recognizes that this history fully warrants our use of the word genocide.

The recent confirmation of hundreds of unmarked graves at former Indian Residential Schools in British Columbia and Saskatchewan is part of a wider history of the physical erasure of Indigenous peoples in Canada. Sadly, the recent news out of Kamloops and Marieval will not be the last and we fully expect further announcements to be made from coast to coast to coast.

Genocide, as a concept, was coined by human rights lawyer Raphael Lemkin to describe “the destruction of a nation or an ethnic group” with “the actions involved directed against individuals, not in their individual capacity, but as members of the national group.” It was first named as a crime under international law in 1946 by the United Nations in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust. Two years later, it was formalized in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which was ratified by 149 states including Canada. According to Article 2 of this convention, genocide is defined as any of the following acts undertaken with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a group of people by (and we quote from https://www.un.org/en/genocideprevention/genocide.shtml): 

  1. Killing members of the group;
  2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
  3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
  4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
  5. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

As is clear from this definition, genocide does not simply refer to mass killings committed over a relatively short time period. It can take other forms and be sustained over time. Taking the long view of European colonial occupation and Indigenous dispossession, we maintain that genocidal intent has been amply established in the historical scholarship and by the words of policy makers at the time. There is a broad consensus on this point among historical experts, further evidenced by the unanimous vote of our governing Council to make this Canada Day Statement.

The existing historical scholarship, based on extensive research into governmental archives, missionary records, archaeological studies, and written and oral testimony of Survivors of residential schools, the 60s Scoop, and families of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls, make this conclusion abundantly clear. The burden of Canada’s genocidal policies have been disproportionately borne by Indigenous women and children. Settler governments, whether they be colonial, imperial, federal, or provincial have worked, and arguably still work, towards the elimination of Indigenous peoples as both a distinct culture and physical group. Even when ‘improvements’ are made, they are often paternalistic and culturally insensitive. In instances in which they are not, many of the systems established in the past continue to disadvantage and negatively impact Indigenous peoples.

As the colonial enterprise in what became Canada moved from colonialism, designed to extract resources, to settler colonialism, Indigenous peoples were increasingly perceived as a threat to modernity and progress. The Indian Act of 1876 amalgamated previous “Indian” policies from across British North America aimed at legitimizing the seizure of Indigenous Lands as well as the increased policing and control of Indigenous peoples and their bodies as a supposed dying race. Indian Residential Schools were the logical conclusion to this horrific perspective and although the last institutions closed in 1996, many scholars argue that starting in the mid-twentieth century, its objectives were taken over by the various provincial child protective services departments that emerged around that time. It does not help that many of the beliefs used to justify these actions remain present in Canada today, often co-existing with completely false and ludicrous stereotypes about Indigenous peoples and their rights.

Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples before it, have extensively documented the ways that the violence of settler colonialism has rippled outward through Indigenous communities. So, too, has the Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. There have also been a large number of provincial inquiries across the country. The recently completed coroner’s inquiry into the death of 37 year old Atikamekw Joyce Echaquan, a mother of seven, in a Quebec hospital has sparked outrage over racism in our health care system. Unfortunately, the archives are filled with stories like this one.

While it is crucial to better understand how Indigenous peoples were affected by these genocidal systems, over the course of more than a century, it is also essential to acknowledge that settler Canadians have benefited from these colonial policies. We are all embedded in the structures of Indigenous dispossession in what is now known as Canada and we understand that while these tough conversations need to be had, it will be our actions that define who we are and what kind of communities we want to build and strengthen and what kinds of histories we research.

Finally, we recognize that historians, in the past, have often been reticent to acknowledge this history as genocide. As a profession, historians have therefore contributed in lasting and tangible ways to the Canadian refusal to come to grips with this country’s history of colonization and dispossession. Our inability, as a society, to recognize this history for what it is, and the ways that it lives on into the present, has served to perpetuate the violence. It is time for us to break this historical cycle. We encourage Canadians to recognize this history for what it is: genocide.

Unanimously approved by the governing Council of the Canadian Historical Association with input from other Indigenous and settler experts in this history. If members of the media have any questions about this statement, please contact Dr. Daniel Sims at dsims@unbc.ca

 

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