• Prime Minister Stephen Harper, right, and Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl, left, take part a traditional smudging ceremony after an official apology by the Canadian government for more than a century of abuse and cultural loss involving residential schools (AAP)Source: AAP
Almost two decades after Australia confronted the systematic theft of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has released a summary of its research into residential schools.
By
Nikki Marczak

14 Jul 2015 - 4:21 PM  UPDATED 14 Jul 2015 - 5:01 PM

Its verdict is that the forced removal and assimilation of Canadian Aboriginal children was 'cultural genocide'.

Already some segments of the community have responded with a defensive backlash, reminiscent of the debate following the 1997 release of Australia’s Bringing Them Home Report on the Stolen Generations.

In fact, Canada's residential school system, which sat at the centre of broader policies of Aboriginal assimilation, was unqualified genocide, according to both international law and the original conceptualisation of the term.

Genocide is a word that triggers intense emotional responses; and as one of the world's most heinous crimes, indeed it should. Its meaning is still hotly debated, even within the genocide studies field. But one thing emerges clearly from the Australian and Canadian cases of stolen children: there are many ways to destroy a group.

These aims were enshrined in government policy, designed and implemented as a way of "killing the Indian" within the child

Canada’s residential schools were government-funded, church-run boarding schools with a mandate to forcibly convert and assimilate around 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Metis children. The practice was founded on racism. As in Australia, children were taken from their families with the goal of 'breeding out' their Aboriginality and erasing their cultural heritage.

These aims were enshrined in government policy, designed and implemented as a way of "killing the Indian" within the child.

The last residential school closed in 1996, only a year before the release of Bringing Them Home. The tragic stories in the TRC summary read like an echo of that report. After six years of research and almost 7,000 interviews, the TRC found that children in residential schools faced constant denigration and were taught to be ashamed of their identities. Survivors recalled having their hair shaved off or their mouths rinsed with soap if they were caught speaking first languages. Attempts to escape or return to their families were met with severe punishment. Spiritual practices were banned, sacred objects destroyed.

The express purpose of the schools was to break the link between children and their families, disrupting the transmission of culture to future generations.

One survivor who was later reunited with her parents explained: "And I looked at my dad, I looked at my mom, I looked at my dad again. You know what? I hated them ... Not because I thought they abandoned me; I hated their brown faces. I hated them because they were Indians."

Shattering the connection between children and their communities also served as a biological tool of genocide, limiting opportunities for marriage and reproduction within the group.

"I looked at my dad, I looked at my mom, I looked at my dad again. You know what? I hated them... Not because I thought they abandoned me; I hated their brown faces"

In addition, conditions at the schools were appalling. Inadequate healthcare and diet, dilapidated buildings and even forced labour led to high mortality rates, while children who made it to the end of their schooling left severely traumatised, often trapped in lives of poverty and substance abuse. The TRC acknowledges that entrenched poor health outcomes and other indicators of disadvantage among Aboriginal communities are a direct legacy of their mistreatment.

The TRC's mandate was to "guide and inspire a process of truth and healing". So does the label of genocide promote the cause of reconciliation, or conversely, polarise the community? Why is it necessary to use it at all?

In the Canadian case, the term is not being employed for political currency.

From both witness testimony and official documents, it is clear that the intent of the government and churches, as manifested in the boarding school system, was to eliminate Indigenous peoples as social and cultural entities. The UN Genocide Convention recognises the removal of children from a group and the prevention of births within it are acts of genocide.

The express purpose of the schools was to break the link between children and their families, disrupting the transmission of culture to future generations.

Similarly, the inhumane conditions in the schools, along with corporal punishment and rampant sexual and psychological abuse, undoubtedly caused many children serious bodily or mental harm, according to the convention, thereby aligning with the legal definition.

Moreover, it is important to recall that the man who coined the term 'genocide', Raphael Lemkin, was particularly focused on preventing cultural destruction, and influenced by his research into the experiences of Indigenous peoples.

Early drafts of the UN Convention included a broad range of instruments under the rubric of 'cultural genocide' which, fearing culpability, both Australia and Canada refused to accept.

The Bringing Them Home report emphasised the need for an accurate description of what happened to Indigenous families as the first step in achieving justice and healing. Likewise, the TRC asserts that "the importance of truth telling in its own right should not be underestimated; it restores the human dignity of victims of violence and calls governments and citizens to account.

"Without truth, justice is not served, healing cannot happen, and there can be no genuine reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in Canada.

Its finding of cultural genocide, albeit qualified, has done much to validate the experiences of Aboriginal victims.
The announcement was met with applause and tears from members of the audience. The words legitimised their suffering, affirmed what they had endured. Importantly, it embodied their survival and resilience in the face of attempts to eliminate them.

There is meaning and hope in such recognition. The broader community can only build a foundation of trust with Indigenous peoples by admitting fully the failings of the past. 

Nikki Marczak is a researcher, writer and policy analyst, focussing on women's experiences of genocide, the Armenian Genocide, current persecution of ethnic and religious minorities and Holocaust memory work. She is a member of the Australian Institute for Holocaust and Genocide Studies and the International Association of Genocide Scholars.