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History in Search of a Name

Examine the debate that led to a declaration describing the Canadian government's colonial policies toward Indigenous Peoples as “cultural genocide.”


  • Social Studies




English — CA



This resource is intended for educators in Canada who are teaching in English.


About This Chapter

The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada described Canada’s Aboriginal policy as cultural genocide. This chapter examines the heated debate that led to this declaration and prompts consideration on what is at stake in the way we remember the past.

  1. What is at stake when people argue over the words used to describe past crimes?
  2. What is genocide? What is cultural genocide?
  3. Why might some resist the use of the word genocide to describe what happened at the residential schools? Why might some insist that the word genocide be used to describe those same events?

This chapter is from the History in Search of a Name section of Stolen Lives and includes:

  • 3 readings
  • Connection questions

Some scholars, activists, and indigenous leaders are not content with the apologies or the Truth and Reconciliation Commission events alone. They would like Canada to acknowledge that the colonial policies that affected the indigenous communities so deeply amount, in fact, to genocide . The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a body that resulted from a settlement agreement between the Indigenous Peoples and the Canadian government, declared in 2015:

For over a century, the central goals of Canada’s Aboriginal policy were to eliminate Aboriginal governments; ignore Aboriginal rights; terminate the Treaties; and, through a process of assimilation , cause Aboriginal peoples to cease to exist as distinct legal, social, cultural, religious, and racial entities in Canada. The establishment and operation of residential schools were a central element of this policy, which can best be described as “cultural genocide” . . . Cultural genocide is the destruction of those structures and practices that allow the group to continue as a group. States that engage in cultural genocide set out to destroy the political and social institutions of the targeted group. . . . Languages are banned. Spiritual leaders are persecuted, spiritual practices are forbidden, and objects of spiritual value are confiscated and destroyed. And, most significantly to the issue at hand, families are disrupted to prevent the transmission of cultural values and identity from one generation to the next. 1

This chapter examines the heated debate that led to this declaration as a way for us to consider what is at stake in the way we remember the past. The debate we follow is particular to the story of the Indian Residential Schools, and yet it raises universal questions about the way the events of the past impact individuals, communities, and nations today.

  • indigenousindigenous: A generic term for communities of people who resided on territories before they were invaded and/or colonized (primarily by Europeans). Many descendants of these communities have a historical and cultural continuity with their pre-colonial ancestors. For some, the term indigenous is preferable to Aboriginal in reference to the First Nations, Métis, and Inuit in Canada.
  • Truth and Reconciliation Commission Truth and Reconciliation Commission: Truth and reconciliation commissions have become commonplace since the 1970s. They reflect a global trend of paying greater attention to mass violations of human rights. Most of a commission’s work is focused on crimes carried out by a government against its own citizens. Since the 1970s, there have been at least 40 truth and reconciliation commissions established worldwide, and some are still active today. Truth commissions involve a multifaceted process designed to help victims overcome historical injustice and trauma and reconcile with those who harmed them. Part of what experts call transitional justice, a truth and reconciliation commis- sions typically includes the elements of truth-seeking, justice, and reconciliation. Established under the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, Canada’s commission began collecting survivor testimonies and related historical information in 2010. In an effort to make this information public, the commission’s archive was opened in 2014. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released its final report, Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future, on June 3, 2015.
  • genocidegenocide: In 1944, Raphael Lemkin coined the term genocide to describe the intentional and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group. Genocide stems from the Greek word genos, which means “race,” and cide, which means “to destroy.” It was legally defined in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide of 1948 (the Genocide Convention). When the Canadian government selectively ratified the Genocide Convention in 1952, it excluded crucial elements of the convention. Many indigenous leaders, activists, and politicians have publicly called on the Canadian government to recognize the Indian Residential Schools system as genocide.
  • AboriginalAboriginal: Stemming from the mid-seventeenth-century Latin term aborigines, meaning “original inhabitants,” Aboriginal is the preferred legal term in Canada for the large and diverse grouping of First Nation, Métis, and Inuit nations. It is used synonymously with the term indigenous in various parts of Canada.
  • assimilationassimilation: This term refers to the process whereby one group or individual’s culture is absorbed into another, creating one single cultural entity, giving up distinct group or individual identity. Believing that indigenous cultures were inferior, the Canadian government, since the middle of the nineteenth century, put forth a series of policies to assimilate the Indigenous Peoples into settler Canadian society.
  • 1 “Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada” (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015), 1–2, 3, 57, accessed June 11, 2015.

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