Canada’s Conversation on Cultural Genocide

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trcBy Cynthia Dawn Roy

The shocking final conclusion of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was that the residential school system was an act of “cultural genocide”. Aboriginal activists and organizations have stressed the importance of keeping TRC issues as part of a national conversation. This post will summarize various trends in Canada’s conversation on cultural genocide throughout June 2015.

The conversation began in earnest after Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin said Canada attempted “cultural genocide” against the aboriginal peoples five days before the TRC report was released.[1] Until this point, the term cultural genocide was only used by certain academics and radical activists. The next day, Sinclair told Canada’s CBC that he agreed with the Chief Justice’s declaration.[2] In an interview with the Ottawa Citizen, former Prime Minister Paul Martin also stated that Canada’s attempt to assimilate aboriginals amounted to cultural genocide, and that Canadians should waste no time in taking concrete actions to improve relations with First Nations.[3] The use of the term by these three esteemed Canadians paved the way for the TRC to state cultural genocide as its main conclusion.

In the following weeks, the phrase escalated from obscurity to common Canadian jargon. Both Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard and Opposition leader Tom Mulcair also labeled Canada’s assimilation policies cultural genocide. The sudden wide-spread acceptance of the term signifies a shift in Canadian thinking towards aboriginal issues. Educators and activists like Kahente Horn-Miller and Jim Daschukbelieve the acceptance of this phrase is empowering. Horn-Miller, an assistant professor at Carleton University, avoided the term in the classroom for fear of being perceived as a radical. Hearing Justice Sinclair use the term cultural genocide at the release of the TRC report filled her with hope, “because now I can call it what it is.”[4] Likewise, Jim Daschuk, author of Clearing the Plains, said he didn’t use the term in his book because he thought the public wasn’t ready to accept it, but he has used the phrase in most of the 50 talks he’s given in the last year.[5]

It is a term that carries weight on an international scale. The Globe and Mail columnist Doug Sanders characterized cultural genocide as “a crime with a real, internationally accepted definition,” one that would be tough to beat if it came down to a formal hearing.[6] He claimed that if Canadians learned of tens of thousands of child-labourers forced away from their communities because of their race, “we would probably use a phrase stronger than ‘cultural genocide’”.

This new label for Canada’s assimilation policies has not been met without contention. Less than a week after the TRC’s report summary was released, Conrad Black’s said in the National Post that he believed Chief Justice McLachlin and the TRC’s use of the phrase cultural genocide was “deliberately provocative and sensational”.[7] He wrote that Canada’s aboriginal people had a “stone age” culture before Europeans arrived, and that they should be grateful that “we have made vastly more of this continent than its original inhabitants could have done.” While Black displays one extreme Canadian mindset, Toronto Star’s Richard Gwyn expressed a more widespread attitude, saying “it would be very hard to find anyone who believes Canadians are the kind of people who engage in cultural genocide.” [8] Those who consider Canada’s immigration programs and multiculturalism to be international role-models are left dumbfounded when assaulted with findings from the TRC’s investigation.

Pamela Palmater, a Mi’kmaq lawyer, insisted that the TRC’s terminology does not go far enough. She stated that Canada did not commit “cultural genocide”, rather, “what happened in residential schools was genocide”,[9] claiming that it’s far too easy for Canada to admit to cultural genocide after fighting to have cultural genocide excluded from the UN’s Genocide Convention. Canada’s role in the Genocide Convention was also covered in detail by Joseph Brean in the National Post, who revealed that if cultural genocide was not removed from the final draft, Canada intended to abandon the convention altogether.[10]

Numerous writers have drawn comparisons between the genocide of Canada’s indigenous peoples and other known genocides; most notably, the Holocaust. Bernie Farber, the son of a Holocaust survivor himself, insisted that Canadians must acknowledge cultural genocide before reconciliation is possible, saying that deniers will soon be dismissed like those who denied the Holocaust.[11] While these comparisons are common, not all are helpful. Catherine Chatterley claimed there is a difference between the Nazi death camps and residential schools. “Forced acculturation is not extermination,” she stated, insisting that comparisons between genocides “do not do justice to the uniqueness of the Aboriginal experience”.[12] She asserted that it is important for Canada to create a sensitive climate to recognize the suffering experienced by residential school survivors without ranking it on a victimization scale.

These few articles represent key arguments and trends in a far larger conversation on the TRC’s conclusion of cultural genocide. The TRC emphasised cultural genocide in their report to spur Canadians to action. The ongoing discussion on how this label applies to the Canadian and First Nations experience is a positive thing, but we must guard against allowing this term to distract us from taking responsibility and action.

Cynthia Dawn Roy is a undergraduate student at Bishop’s University and she completed this research as a part of Prof. David Webster’s Memory Truth and Reconciliation project. In addition to this post, she completed a spreadsheet database recording the media coverage of the of the TRC Canada interim report from May-June 2015 .

[1] Sean Fine. “Chief Justice says Canada attempted ‘cultural genocide’ on aboriginals,” The Globe and Mail, 28 May, 2015.

[2] John Paul Tasker. “Residential school findings point to ‘cultural genocide,’ commission chair says,” CBC News.

[3] Mark Kennedy. “Canada must improve native education, health care now: Paul Martin,” Ottawa Citizen, 30 May, 2015.

[4] Kahente Horn-Miller. “Term cultural genocide ‘carries weight’ in the classroom, teacher says,” CBC News, 14 June, 2015.

[5] Jason Warick. “Accepting cultural genocide label only a first step, experts say,” The StarPhoenix, 8 June, 2015.

[6] Doug Sanders. “Residential schools, reserves and Canada’s crime against humanity.” The Globe and Mail, 5 June, 2015.

[7] Conrad Black. “Canada’s treatment of aboriginals was shameful, but it was not genocide,” National Post, 6 June, 2015.

[8] Richard Gwyn. “Did Canada really commit ‘cultural genocide’?: Gwyn,” The Toronto Star, 8 June, 2015.

[9] Pamela D. Palmater. “Canadian and Church Officials Must be Accountable for Genocide,” TeleSUR, 17 June, 2015.

[10] Joseph Brean. “ Canada opposed concept of ‘cultural genocide’ in 1948 accord,” National Post, 8 June, 2015.

[11] Bernie Farber. “Truth, reconciliation and genocide denial,” Now Toronto, 21 June, 2015.

[12] Catherine Chatterley. “How to avoid a victimization Olympics,” The Huffington Post, 17 June.

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4 thoughts on “Canada’s Conversation on Cultural Genocide

  1. Bonnie Huskins

    Hi Cynthia and other readers: I teach a 2nd year Canadian history course next winter at St Thomas University. I always have a large module on residential schools, and this year I would also like to integrate the TRC. Does anyone have any suggestions as to how one might integrate the issue of cultural genocide in an informed and sensitive way into the classroom?

  2. waawaaskesh

    I think it’s important to point out that even Justice Sinclair was willing to say that it was unqualified genocide, by definition of what genocide is.

    This is my article and video interview with him from 2013:


    All of these experiences and impacts on individuals, families and communities are part of what was documented as a planned project to “kill the Indian in the child,” says Sinclair. “The forcible annihilation, through removal of children, of one race … is an act of genocide. And I’ve pointed that out to the Canadian population — that the International Convention on Genocide includes a definition that exactly describes what went on in residential schools and why residential schools were created.”

    He adds that because Canada has not fully adopted the Convention on Genocide, “officials in Canada cannot be prosecuted for what’s occurred … but people have sometimes misinterpreted it to mean that therefore they have not committed genocide, and that’s not quite accurate.”

  3. Rochelle Johnston

    Bonnie – I’d begin by taking a stroll across campus and talking to one of the woefully under acknowledged originators of this discussion Roland Chrisjohn – but first have a look at his book. If it was me I’d ask him to guest lecture for your course. Then look up the most recent issue of the Journal of Genocide Research, and there’s also a book edited by Andrew Woolford. The genocide literature engages the cultural genocide question but from an entirely Eurocentric perspective (why I’m recommending Dr. Chrisjohn). For pedagogical support with broaching the topic of genocide you could try contacting the NGO Facing History, Facing Ourselves – their Toronto office. My research looks at Indigenous Canadian educators and their not teaching about genocide in Canada… but I don’t have anything ready yet. If you’ll be at Congress this year I’ll be presenting on this so please stop by if you’re interested and let me know how things went.

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