The Question Concerning Genocide

Cultural genocide — that’s what a Canadian commission ruled that country’s former practice of forcibly removing First Nations children from their family homes.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada spent six years investigating Canada’s residential schools for native children. In the late 19th into the 20th century, Canadian officials would take First Nations children from their homes and send them to boarding schools meant to help them assimilate into white Canadian culture.

Over the course of their history, the schools saw 150-thousand children of native background walk through their doors. At the boarding schools students were stripped of their native culture; many also were subjected to various kinds of abuse. Native families and communities are still working to come to terms with the legacy of forcible removal.

The commission’s labeling of the practice “genocide” sparked a heated debate in Canada — over whether it is the right term to describe what happened; others suggest the use of the term blots out Canada’s attempts at crafting an inclusive society; others have pointed out that in 1948 Canada, along with the United States and some Western European countries, fought a United Nations move to ban cultural genocide.

The United Nations 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines the term thus:

…a crime of intentional destruction of a national, ethnic, racial and religious group, in whole or in part.

Long before Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission made its ruling, activists, scholars, and governments have debated whether native peoples the world over have been the victims of genocide.


Image by Xomiele. (Flickr Creative Commons.)

Andrea Smith argues in her book Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide that the history of violence and colonialism endured by Native Americans serves as a kind of genocide — stripping native populations of power and, at times, of their culture.


In 2011, NPR produced a series of reports exploring how the foster care system removed Native American children from their families, placing them in non-native homes that served to sever them from native culture. The practice has been equated with the United States own history of forcible removal. Like Canada (and Australia), the US once sent Native American children to boarding schools in order to “help” them assimilate into white American society.

In their book, Stories in the Time of Cholera: Racial Profiling during a Medical Nightmare, authors Charles Briggs and Clara Mantini-Briggs document the systemic failure of Venezuelan public health officials in the fight against cholera. This was due, in part, to the way the disease was racialized — this racialization, its connection to indigenous populations, allowed officials to blame the victims of the illness and often kept necessary resources from flowing to the region affected.

In Australia, two-thirds of indigenous people die before they are 65 — some arguing this is because of the lack of resources indigenous Australians have access to. There are others who suggest that the resources that have been stripped from native peoples, resources that have often contributed to global climate change, may prove genocidal as not only are the resources taken but native land may become uninhabitable.

A paper by Dean Neu of York University published in 2000 argued that accounting practices in Canada serve as a modern kind of colonization and help perpetuate a cultural genocide against the nation’s native peoples because “governments may introduce incentive schemes which encourage indigenous peoples to change their behaviours. In other instances incentive mechanisms and/or changed accountability requirements are used to encourage third parties to undertake actions which, in turn, impact upon indigenous peoples, their territory and their mode of subsistence.”

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has made 94 recommendations on how Canada can move forward — including adopting the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

In writing of the commission’s findings, Julian Brave Nosecat at the Huffington Post, wondered when the United States would confront its own history of forced removal.

Without the sort of inquiry that Canada has committed to — and with few options for legal recourse — broad understanding of the experiences of generations of Native American children who faced the systematic erasure of their culture (and worse) remains lacking, said Andrea Carmen, executive director of the International Indian Treaty Council and a board member of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition.

Increasing public knowledge about the Native American boarding schools is an important first step, she added.

“Most U.S. citizens… are not aware of this,” Carmen said. “Even the progressive human rights activists don’t know that this has happened and that we are still addressing the traumatic legacy of this situation in Indian nations.”

Australia also removed children of indigenous background from their homes, ostensibly to protect them from parental abuse or neglect. These children have become known as the “Stolen Generation” — like their counterparts in the United States and Canada, while at boarding school the children were stripped of their native culture and experienced various kinds of abuse.

In 2008 then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd offered an apology to the Stolen Generation as well as Australia’s indigenous population more broadly.

“For the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.”

Since 1998, Australia has also observed “National Sorry Day” on May 26 “to commemorate the history of forcible removals and its effects.”

Though governments are increasingly aiming a critical eye at their treatment of indigenous peoples, that examination does little to right the erasure, the “cultural genocide,” many native cultures have experienced.

Joy Hendry as well as John and Jean Comaroff have written about how native groups are finding ways to push back against systemic cultural and social erasure as they try to move past the legacy of trauma and abuse — sometimes latching onto historic understandings of what they feel to be their culture; other times seeking ways of monetizing that culture in order to bring more resources into the community.

Framing Fellow Katerina Teaiwa’s most recent book, Consuming Ocean Island: Stories of People and Phosphate from Banaba, tackles a number of issues related to resources, identity, and indigenous culture.

It remains to be seen how the Canadian government will respond to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s findings, or whether other countries will fund similar commissions.

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