Indigenous rights in Canada – ‘cultural genocide’ and the legacy of ‘assimilation’

On Day 4 of the IASC 2015 Commons conference in Edmonton, Alberta, the headlines in the Globe and Mail, a national newspaper, referred to Canada’s treatment of First Nations people as ‘A history of cultural genocide’, in reference to remarks by the Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin. She is reported as the ‘highest ranking Canadian official to use the phrase’. The paper reported her as saying that Canada ‘developed an ethos of exclusion and cultural annihilation’ as she identified a number of activities that had occurred over the previous century and a half, including ‘…laws barring Indians from leaving reservations, rampant starvation and diseases, outlawing of religious and social traditions, and residential schools where children forcibly taken from their parents were subject to physical and sexual abuse’.

Canada's national newspaper: the Globe and Mail headline 29th May 2015
Canada’s national newspaper: the Globe and Mail headline 29th May 2015
Residential School, Canada
Residential School, Canada (Image courtesy CBC News Canada

The history of Canada’s relationship with its native peoples, in particular the now discredited concept of ‘assimilation’, which originated under the Indians Act of 1867 and was implemented over the following 150 years, has created deep-seated problems that continue into the present, hindering economic and social development particularly in the northern regions of the country. Indicative of the situation is a report, also on the front page of the same newspaper on the same day, concerning placement of foster-children in rural hotels in Manitoba, a neighbouring province of Alberta. The report indicated that the provincial government had ‘no idea how many foster children are living in hotels in rural and northern communities’. This follows a case of sexual assault on a foster child placed in a Best Western in Winnipeg and comes, ‘days before a provincial deadline to eradicate hotel placements’. There are an estimated 10,000 foster children in Manitoba, 90% of them are native.


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Aboriginal students attending the Metlakatla Indian Residential School. (Credit: William James Topley / Library and Archives Canada / C-015037)

One of the key components of the assimilation policy established in the 19th century was the control of education (and the role of First Nations education continues to be debated today). From the 1880s onwards the federal government, in conjunction with religious institutions, operated residential schools for aboriginal education. Children had to attend from the ages of 5 to 16, often being forcibly removed from the parents, separated from brothers and sisters, forced to speak English and not their native languages, and to practice Christianity. In the 1970s the government started closing down the schools, although it was not until 1996 that the last school closed.
The massive damage inflicted on indigenous peoples by the residential schools programme has been recognised to the extent that a ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission’ was established in 2008 under the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, with a mandate to ‘reveal to Canadians the complex truth about the history and ongoing legacy of the church run residential schools…and to guide and inspire a process of truth and healing…’
The findings of the Commission were released this week, following six years of work including national and local events held across the country, documenting 6,750 statements from survivors of residential schools, and legal battles to obtain evidence from the Canadian Government. The Commission’s June 2nd report (entitled ‘Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future’) also contains 94 ‘Calls to action’, including taking steps to protect child welfare, preserve language and culture, promote legal equity, strengthen information on missing children, and the need for governments across Canada to adopt and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
The Canadian Government has not yet made any formal response in relation to the summary report published this week, stating it will wait until the full report is submitted later this year.
“…if I were to single out one action that has too long been ignored, it would be to repair the mistake that was made by colonial governments who, believing that native culture had no value, assumed its people had nothing to say. This false assumption has contributed grievously to the wrong and repeated attempts to assimilate the First Nations, which is a root cause of so much of the poverty and missed opportunity we see today. From outlawing traditional ceremonies to the horrors of residential schools, the history of Canada is fraught with examples of a culturally genocidal dismissal of First Nations values and sense of worth, a policy of unconscionable discrimination that continues apace.”

Paul Martin (Prime Minister of Canada 2003-2006)
(Source: Globe and Mail 9th February 2015)

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Image courtesy Simon Fraser University