Canada and the Forgotten Cultural Genocide

by Maria Busuioc

When we speak of genocide, most people think of brutal mass killings on racial or religious grounds, having the image of the Holocaust or Armenian genocide still vivid in our minds. But this is not the only type of genocide that society has observed over the years. A lesser known type of atrocity is the cultural genocide. The scope of this article is to shed a light on this forgotten but equally important form of genocide and in doing so, it will focus on the issue of aboriginal people from Canada.

Often forgotten or not given enough attention, the concept of cultural genocide has been around for some time. It was recognized as a genocide by Raphael Lemkin, a lawyer who conducted ground-breaking work in the area of mass atrocities, grouping them under the term of ‘genocide’. In 1944, Lemkin recognized that a genocide is a process that involves the destruction of perceived inferior people. He further argues that this is only be possible if they are transformed into their occupiers or if they are simply removed if they do not embrace the new cultural norms.

So what has Canada to do with this?

What is not widely reported or talked about is the situation of Canada’s Residential Schools, an issue that describes exactly the core understanding of cultural genocide. The cultural and personal devastation brought upon the children and families by the residential schools’ policy was not exposed until the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was created.

The Residential Schools policy was implemented by the Canadian government in the 20th century as method to forcibly assimilate Indigenous people, in the hope that it would prevent them from asking for financial and legal obligation on the part of the Canadian government. But what was the price for this? The policy meant that children were removed from their families and incarcerated in schools run by the church, where abuse was part of the routine. The treatment that the children were receiving was explained in great detail by the commission. It included them being malnourished, neglected and banned from speaking their native languages (such as Inuit and Métis). Survivors have also said that sexual and physical abuse was also present during their time in this establishment.

Another aspect of this horrific treatment, that is evidently breaching even the most basic human rights, is that many children died and were buried without any identification or their families being informed. The Guardian, in an article in 2015, quoted the commissioner Marie Wilson about the chilling picture one would face in the time of these schools:

‘Parents … had their children ripped out of their arms, taken to a distant and unknown place, never to be seen again,” she said. “Buried in an unmarked grave, long ago forgotten and overgrown. Think of that. Bear that. Imagine that.”

These words alone help one appreciate the gravity of this cultural genocide. Not only were children forced to attend schools that would destroy their identity, but in doing so they were denied rights such as freedom of expression or the very right to life.

For a long time these atrocities were buried; at one point the Canadian government refused to even keep track of the deaths as it would put the country into a bad light, but the issue was eventually brought to the political foreground when the government addressed the matter. In 2008, the Canadian government issued an apology to those who have been subjected to Residential School system. The belated apology was made to those who had attended the school and also to parents whose children were forcefully taken away and tragically never returned.

This way, the government finally recognized that the Residential Schools system was a dark period of Canada’s past that has disrupted the existence of a community and left lasting damage. To emphasize the need for truth, a commission was developed to further the search into the inhuman treatment that took place in Residential Schools.

The only conclusion we can draw after this tragedy is that we do not have to forget our past, as dark as it may be. We can understand the application and the need for the existence of human rights if we look at these atrocities, keep them present in our memory and learn from these mistakes in order not to repeat them. We cannot go back and change the past, but we can learn from it. Just as Edmund Burke famously said, “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it”.