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A Canadian Genocide in Search of a Name

Read a call to Canada's government to recognize its treatment of Indigenous Peoples in colonial Canada as genocide.  
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This resource is intended for educators in Canada who are teaching in English.

At a Glance

Reading

Language

English — CA
Also available in:
French — CA

Subject

  • History
  • Genocide

In the 1990s, more and more scholars, activists, and Indigenous leaders began to demand that Canada recognize the treatment of Indigenous Peoples as genocide. 1 In a recent article, “A Canadian Genocide in Search of a Name,” Phil Fontaine, former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, along with Michael Dan, a medical doctor and philanthropist, and Bernie M. Farber, the son of Holocaust survivors and executive director of the Mosaic Institute, called on Canada’s government to accept responsibility and do just that. 2

It is time for Canadians to face the sad truth. Canada engaged in a deliberate policy of attempted genocide against

First Nations

people. . . .

Some have argued that the beginnings of this genocide had its seeds in the establishment of the Indian Act

of 1876, which legalized First Nations as an inferior group and made them wards of the state. In truth, these were just words on paper compared with accusations lodged against the Canadian government by our first Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Peter Bryce, in 1907. . . .

Dr. Bryce uncovered a “national crime” pertaining to the health of First Nations people. . . . According to Bryce, Canada’s aboriginal people in Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan were being “decimated by tuberculosis and . . . the federal government possessed the means to stop it.” Instead, it chose such a minimalist approach that, in the medical opinion of Dr. Bryce, it “amounted to almost nothing.” . . .

We must ask ourselves: When does genocide become genocide? This might seem an absurd question, but history isn’t always forthcoming with a neat little package bearing the label “genocide, open with caution.” . . . Under [the UN Genocide Convection’s] definition, Canada’s treatment of its First Nations, even in our own lifetime, meets the genocide test:

The recently exposed nutrition experiments carried out in the residential schools meets the criteria under point [2] (b).

The residential school system itself, and the practice of forcibly removing First Nations children from reserves

and placing them with adoptive non-aboriginal families, common in the 1960s, and referred to as the Sixties Scoop, meet the criteria under point [2] (e).

The decision by the government in the 1900s to allow native children to die of tuberculosis meets the criteria under point [2] (c).

This list is by no means exhaustive. . . .

The Government of Canada currently recognizes five genocides: the Holocaust, the Holodomor, the Armenian genocide, the Rwandan genocide and Srebrenica.

The time has come for Canada to formally recognize a sixth genocide, the genocide of its own aboriginal communities; a genocide that began at the time of first contact and that was still very active in our own lifetimes; a genocide currently in search of a name but no longer in search of historical facts. 3

Connection Questions

  1. According to the authors of the passage above, in what ways were the residential schools genocidal? Do you agree with the authors? Why or why not?
  2. Dr. Peter Bryce was commissioned by the Canadian government to investigate the health conditions in the residential schools at the beginning of the twentieth century, and he wrote a book called The Story of a National Crime: Being a Record of the Health Conditions of the Indians of Canada from 1904 to 1921. How does the inclusion of a reference to Bryce impact the author’s argument?
  3. While there are no legal obligations that would come with recognizing the actions of the residential schools as genocide, what moral and ethical obligations might come with that recognition?
  4. Bernie Farber, mentioned in this reading, recently published an essay in which he argues that “no amount of research, no recounting of first-hand memories recited by thousands of residential school seems enough to halt those who simply refuse to accept our historical role in attempting to wipe out Indigenous culture and thousands of its people from our land.” Farber goes on to say that Gregory Stanton, the president of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, claims that “denial is the final stage of genocide.”
    With these reflections in mind, why do you think activists, survivors, and scholars fought to have the residential schools activity classified as genocide? What did they and supporters like Farber hope to achieve?
  5. In her prize-winning 2003 book about genocide, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, scholar and diplomat Samantha Power stressed the use of the word genocide as part of the effort to stop and prevent them. Two years later, the world faced rapid escalation of violence and mass killings in the Darfur region of Sudan. Under pressure from different grassroots and political organizations, then President George W. Bush declared the action of the Sudan government against the Darfurians’ genocide. This use of the “G-word” was a victory to many who consider genocide the worst international crime. But the killings did not abate following this declaration, and the number of dead and displaced people continues to rise, estimated today at 300,000 deaths and 6 million displaced people.
    In light of these facts, what do you think is the value of the label genocide? Is it just symbolic? Would the use of the word genocide help in Canada? What else is needed to end the ongoing pain, loss, and suffering of the Indigenous Peoples?
  • 1Andrew Woolford, Jeff Benvenuto, and Alexander Laban Hinton, eds., Colonial Genocide in Indigenous North America (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014), 5–7.
  • 2Both Michael Dan and Bernie Farber head the Gemini Power Corporation, which is supporting First Nations in their efforts to create sustainable industries. 
  • First NationsFirst Nations: First Nations have lived in North America for tens of thousands of years. Today, the term refers to some 617 different communities, traditionally composed of groups of 400 or so. These nations enjoy a richness and diversity of identity, culture, and customs. Many view North America as their traditional homeland and do not recognize aspects of US and Canadian sovereignty. Alongside the Métis and Inuit Peoples, First Nations are part of a larger grouping officially called the Aboriginal Peoples of Canada.
  • Indian ActIndian Act: Enacted by the federal government in 1876, the Indian Act combined all previous legislation regarding the First Nations and brought them under federal jurisdiction. This act created the term Indian as a legal category and defined Status Indian (registered Indian), which excluded Inuit and Métis people. It gave the government, through the Department of Indian Affairs, the power to create laws and policies regarding “Indians” and “Indian” affairs such as membership, reserve infrastructure and services, systems of governance, culture, and education.
  • reservesreserves: The key tool of a common colonial strategy, reserves were small, barely habitable areas where the colonizers sought to manage the people they dispossessed. In Canada, the 1850s saw a series of legislative enactments redefining the boundaries of First Nations communities, property, and land use, which increased pressure to relocate to reserves. Lack of investment and poor government services exacerbated First Nations isolation, leaving many reserves economically depressed and prone to violence and crime.
  • 3Phil Fontaine, Michael Dan, and Bernie M. Farber, “A Canadian Genocide in Search of a Name,” The Star, July 19, 2013, accessed October 3, 2014. Reproduced by permission of Phil Fontaine, Michael Dan, and Bernie M. Farber.

How to Cite This Reading

Facing History and Ourselves, "A Canadian Genocide in Search of a Name," last updated September 20, 2019.

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