The House of Commons states Canada committed genocide against Indigenous people. Why did it take so long?

“What unfolded hearkens to such words as extermination and genocide. Canada, this is your legacy.”.

Elizabeth A. Fenn, Pulitzer Prize historian from the Forward to “Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation and the Loss of Indigenous Life. James Daschuk. March 2, 2019

Three months laters on June 3, 2019 the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Commission Final Report “Reclaiming Power and Place” went one step further than the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s charges of “cultural genocide” and accused Canada of committing genocide based on Article II of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (signed by Canada):

  • Killing members of the group
  • Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group
  • Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part
  • Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group
  • Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group

In actual fact though, Murray Sinclair, the former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, acknowledged in an interview:

“We avoided using the singular word genocide without a defining term (cultural) for a couple of reasons. One was that there was a legal prohibition in our mandate that said that we could not pronounce culpability. Therefore, we were concerned that if we simply used the term genocide—which surely we could have—the government or somebody would have asked a court to wipe out that part of the report. And the court, in its heavy-handed way, would likely have simply deleted those findings. So we couched it as carefully as we could, but as clearly as we could, by referencing the term cultural genocide.

KCI-NIWESW in August 2021:

“Many Canadian media argued the $98-million national inquiry – whose setbacks and flaws were thoroughly documented – was wrong to accuse the government of genocide (APTN June 3, 2020). The Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail, the National Post, CBC and others all disagreed with the damning conclusion drawn by the MMIWG Inquiry. The media helps to shape public opinion. By refusing to accept the reality as lived and experienced by generations of Indigenous people, the national media helps to minimize the truth about Canadian history.

Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation and the Loss of Indigenous Life” was originally published in 2013 and received numerous awards: Sir John A. MacDonald Prize, Aboriginal History Prize, Clio Prize. Named “one of the most important books of the twenty-first century” by the Literary Review of Canada and “Book of the Year” by The Globe and Mail, Quill and Quire, The Writers’ Trust. Given such universal acclaim for its original edition and its re-issue in 2019, how could the media be so surprised by the MMIWG conclusion about genocide. The evidence as documented by James Daschuk is incontrovertible.

However, since that media furor in 2019, Canada has come a long way.

On June 3, 2021, shorty after the discovery of 215 unmarked graves of residential school children at Kamloop’s Indian Residential School, Prime Minister Trudeau accepted the finding of the MMIWG Final Report that Canada had in fact committed genocide against Indigenous people.

On July 30, 2022 after his historic apologies to the survivors of residential schools Pope Francis said, “To take away children, to change the culture, their mindset, their traditions — to change a race, an entire culture … yes I (do) use the word genocide.”

And finally, on October 27, 2022 NDP member of Parliament for Winnipeg Centre Leah Gazan introduced a motion that read as follows:

That, in the opinion of the House that the government must recognize what happened in Canada’s Indian residential schools as genocide, as acknowledged by Pope Francis and in accordance with article II of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

“We must honour the experience of residential school survivors, their communities and families.” said Gazan. “We all have a responsibility as elected officials to speak the truth. Only then will we achieve justice and demonstrate that we are truly committed to reconciliation.”

The House of Commons gave unanimous consent to Gazan’s motion: Liberals, Conservatives, NDP, Bloc Québécois and The Green Party of Canada.

Even the Conservatives!

The same conservatives who voted unanimously against The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) in the House and in the Senate on two separate occasions – June, 2019 and June 2021 – supported the motion. The conservatives – nationally and provincially – still see UNDRIP as a fundamental roadblock to the economic well-being of Canada based on the discredited – and disavowed – notion of the Doctrine of Discovery that claims “this land is our land not yours! The Supreme Court negated this claim through three separate court decisions: Calder (1973), Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa (1997) and Tsilhqot’in (2014).

And yet, they supported this motion about genocide. What does that say about Canada?

That despite the still significant opposition to a number of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Calls to Action, Canada as a country is not afraid to look into its past treatment of Indigenous people, accept and acknowledge its racist policies – both structural and systemic – and take concrete steps to respond to each of the 94 Calls to Action. Positive actions and commitments have been and are continuing to be made by all jurisdictions: federal, provincial, territory and municipal governments (of all political parties) as well as non-government stakeholders across all strata of society.

But we still have a long way to go.

Murray Sinclair, the former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was right when he stated, “Education got us into this mess and education will get us out.” No less than 22 of the 94 Calls to Action have a specific education component including such topics as:

  • History and impacts of residential schools
  • Church’s roles in colonization and residential schools
  • Aboriginal people in Canadian history
  • Treaties and Aboriginal Rights
  • United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
  • Indigenous teachings and practices
  • Aboriginal People and the Law
  • Indigenous Laws
  • Aboriginal-Crown relations
  • Indigenous spiritual practices

A poll conducted by the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, the Assembly of First Nations and Abacus Data in June 15, 2021 shows that the majority of Canadians believe governments are not doing enough to teach students about the legacy of the residential school system. “The results of the survey expose glaring gaps of knowledge and education related to Canada’s history and renew calls to re-examine questions around who should be held accountable.

  • 93 percent of Canadians are aware of the discovery of remains at the site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School, with 58 percent Canadians following the news closely.
  • This is a slight increase (seven percent) in the number of Canadians who were closely following the news on the legacy of residential schools upon the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, nearly six years ago.
  • Despite 72 percent of Canadians being saddened by the news of the unmarked graves, only 10 percent of Canadians are very familiar with the history of the residential school system
  • 62 percent of Canadians believe that provincial education curricula do not include nearly enough about residential schools,
  • 65 percent believe the level of education around residential schools should increase.
  • 70 percent of survey respondents say that the framing of residential schools has been downplayed in the education system.

Almost 30 years ago, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples delivered their report with 440 recommendations, almost all of which were ignored. That report joined the dusty shelves containing multiple reports on solutions to address endemic Indigenous issues put there over the years:

1963The Hawthorne Report: A Survey of the Contemporary Indians of Canada: Economic, Political, Educational Needs and Policies. Volumes 1 and 2
1969The White Paper: Statement of the Government of Canada on Indian policy
1971Wahbung Report: Our Tomorrows
1977Indian Self-Government
1983Penner Report
1996Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples 
2005Kelowna Accord
2012Crown – First Nations Gathering

Now we have the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Final Report. Seven+ years later, the government is actually tracking progress as are a number of independent organizations. This time is different.

Stakeholders – especially all levels of government – are finally being held accountable and are beginning to do what should have been done generations ago – accepting Indigenous people into Canada as equal participants in shaping and sharing in Canada’s future. Almost 500 years ago, the original inhabitants of Turtle Island did exactly that – welcomed the new strangers into their midst to live as equal partners.

History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.

Maya Angelo, “On the Pulse of Morning”

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