UM Today UM Today University of Manitoba UM Today UM Today UM Today

Wpg Free Press: Indian residential schools were unqualified genocide

June 4, 2015 — 

The following is an op-ed written by Adam Muller, associate professor of English, film and theatre at the University of Manitoba. He is a co-director of the interdisciplinary Embodying Empathy Project., This article originally appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press print edition on June 4, 2015.


The release of the executive summary of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, along with recent remarks by commission chairman Murray Sinclair and Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, have helped to redirect national attention to the crimes committed historically against aboriginal Canadians.

However, by characterizing these crimes as “cultural genocide,” commentators have not gone far or been clear enough, notwithstanding the profound significance of this explicit acknowledgment of the catastrophic harms of European-settler colonialism.

There is no such crime as “cultural” genocide, either in international or Canadian law. Although the Genocide Convention speaks to the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group,” the means of destruction emphasized by the United Nations are overwhelmingly physical.

An exception is the forcible removal of children, which no doubt McLachlin and Sinclair were thinking of in relation to Canada’s residential school system, and which allows University of Guelph political scientist David Macdonald and others to argue genocide has been committed in this country.

Recent revelations that more than 6,000 children died while attending residential schools further bolster this dimension of the genocide claim.

However, we need to be very cautious about assuming the law is the final authority on whether or not genocide has been committed, in Canada or elsewhere.

The history of the Genocide Convention shows it to be deeply indebted to the anxiety of its drafters – including Canada, France, Britain, and the U.S. – that their own treatment of minorities would leave them open to charges of genocide. These countries actively and self-interestedly worked to narrow the term’s legal definition to exclude most aspects of the destruction of culture, a core “technique” of genocide identified by Raphael Lemkin, the Polish-Jewish jurist who first conceived of the crime.

Lemkin oversaw the drafting of the Genocide Convention and was devastated by the narrowing of its scope, which he spent the rest of his life attempting to enlarge in order to properly address the many different ways in which a group’s life – its “ongoingness” – may be damaged beyond repair.

Genocides may often involve the conspicuous production of dead bodies, but they fundamentally concern the destruction of groups. Mass murder is one, but by no means the only, technology whereby this destruction comes about. Genocide occurs whenever there is a concerted attempt to destroy the integrity of a group’s life, to make its ongoingness impossible. Accordingly, it is difficult to argue Canadian-settler colonialism has been anything but genocidal. As sociologist Andrew Woolford has argued, and as related work by scholars such as James Daschuk has shown, colonialism in Canada has consistently viewed aboriginal life as a problem in need of overcoming.

The impulse to displace and assimilate aboriginal populations, of which the IRS is only the most conspicuous symptom, rests on the assumption indigenous life is somehow not worth living, that in its traditional forms aboriginal peoples possess what the Nazis once termed “life unworthy of life.”

Genocides may be more and less tightly scripted, and the intentions behind them more and less explicit. Philosophers and psychologists distinguish between two kinds of intention — “proximal” and “distal.” Proximal intentions are those responsible for our specific and immediate acts. Distal intentions help to make our proximal intentions make sense; they shape and sustain the plans that make our actions coherent.

Those looking for evidence of genocidal intent in the Canadian context need look no further than the traces of distal intent in remarks such as the following by Duncan Campbell Scott, deputy superintendent of the Department of Indian Affairs from 1913-1932:

“The happiest future for the Indian race is absorption into the general population, and this is the object of the policy of our government. The great forces of intermarriage and education will finally overcome the lingering traces of native custom and tradition.”

By focusing primarily on the IRS experience in their claims concerning “cultural genocide,” Sinclair, McLachlin, former prime minister Paul Martin and others have drawn attention away from the myriad, long-standing, and enduring ways in which unqualified genocide has been perpetrated in Canada.

Acknowledging this uncomfortable truth remains one of the first requirements of genuine reconciliation in this country, a process in which the TRC has played a crucial role.

To admit any less than this – to suggest Canadian aboriginal peoples’ experience of settler colonialism is of a “special” or less destructive kind – is to blur the distinction between the methods and the aims of genocidal conduct.

In some cases (as in an offensively ill-informed recent National Post column by Hymie Rubenstein and Rodney Clifton, who claim the impact of residential schools on aboriginal people has been exaggerated), it also implies the attempted destruction of aboriginal group life costs and matters less than similar attempts made during other genocides.

Such crass participation in what Holocaust scholar Antony Polonsky terms the “suffering Olympics” disgraces those engaged in it, and diminishes both the suffering and extraordinary resilience of Canada’s aboriginal people.


, ,

© University of Manitoba • Winnipeg, Manitoba • Canada • R3T 2N2

Emergency: 204-474-9341