Canada’s Supreme Court Chief, Justice Beverley McLachlin, has described his country’s treatment of Aboriginal Canadians as "cultural genocide" ahead of National Aboriginal Day (NAD) on 21 June.
She is the highest ranking Canadian official to use the term.
"The objective - I quote from Sir John A. Macdonald, our revered forefather - was to 'take the Indian out of the child,' and thus solve what was referred to as the Indian problem," Chief Justice McLachlin told an annual Pluralism Lecture last week held by the Global Centre for Pluralism.
"'Indianness' was not to be tolerated; rather, it must be eliminated. In the buzz-word of the day, assimilation; in the language of the 21st century, cultural genocide."
Ms McLachlin was referring to an investigation by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission into the impact of the Indian Residential School system.
The report found that government assimilation policies, such as the residential school system, worked to assimilate the Indigenous population with devastating consequences.
"We think that we have not uncovered anywhere near what the total would be because the record keeping around that question was very poor"
The chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Justice Murray Sinclair, told Canadian media that at least 6,000 Aboriginal children died in educational care.
"We think that we have not uncovered anywhere near what the total would be because the record keeping around that question was very poor," Sinclair said.
Ms McLachlin added that, "The most glaring blemish on the Canadian historic record relates to our treatment of the First Nations that lived here at the time of colonisation."
The draft of the United Nations 1948 Genocide Convention termed cultural genocide as destroying specific characteristics of the group. It did not make it into the final document, but Article 7 in the 1994 Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states the right to be free from genocide:
"Indigenous people….shall not be subjected to any act of genocide or any other act of violence, including forcibly removing children of the group to another group."
And Article 8 prohibits action that threatens culture: "Indigenous peoples and individuals have the right not to be subjected to forced assimilation or destruction of their culture."
National Aboriginal Day will held on Sunday, June 21 at Penewawa Centennial Park, to celebrate the diverse First Nations, Inuit and Métis cultures, which the Canadian Constitution recognises as three Aboriginal groups.
The day coincides with the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, which Aboriginal peoples and communities have celebrated for generations.
NAD was announced in 1996 by then-Canadian Governor General Roméo LeBlanc, following calls by Aboriginal groups such as the Assembly of First Nations (then National Indian Brotherhood) and the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.
About 4 percent or 1.4 million people, of the population identify as Aboriginal. Fifty percent are Indians, 30 percent Métis, 15 percent are non-status Indians and 4 percent are Inuit, according to the 2011 Canadian Household Survey.
There are 617 First Nation communities within more than 50 nations or cultural groups across the country.