Using the right word — genocide — to describe Canada’s treatment of Aboriginal peoples


JULY 31, 2013

While riding the elevator together, our Canada Post mail carrier peered over my shoulder at the front page of my newspaper. Pointing to the article on Aboriginal children being starved in government research experiments, in a strong Eastern European accent he exclaimed, “Shameful! Just like what the Nazis and then the Soviets did to us. And here in Canada we let them get away with it?”

According to Raphael Lemkin, the inventor of the term genocide and the reason we now consider it a crime, genocide is a coordinated plan aimed at destroying a group. Despite popular misconceptions, it doesn’t require killing all, or even some of the members of the group.

While there may not have been a master plan to execute every Aboriginal person in Canada, throughout much of our history there has been a deeply and widely held belief that First Nations, Metis and Inuit, as groups, should cease to exist. Reducing the number of Aboriginal people and eliminating those who weren’t willing to assimilate into Euro-Canadian society was helpful to this cause. Evidence of genocidal desires can be found in any number of government documents and public statements, and when the conditions were right, Canadians, whether bureaucrats, researchers, doctors, missionaries, social workers or entrepreneurs, felt justified in carrying out a range of genocidal acts.

The time has come for non-Aboriginal Canadians to wake up and stop hiding behind words like cultural genocide and convoluted legal defenses. Forcibly transferring children from one group of people to another, like in the Indian Residential School System and the “Sixties Scoop” which adopted out Aboriginal children to white families, is explicitly forbidden in article 2e of the UN Genocide Convention. Deliberately starving children is too according to articles 2b and 2c.

If it wasn’t for Canada, and a contingent of colonizing nations who in 1948 gutted a whole section of the UN Genocide Convention, the other “kinder” and “gentler” techniques of genocide we were and are still using against Aboriginal peoples would also be crimes. As historical research like Dr. Ian Mosby’s is beginning to show us non-Aboriginal Canadians — it’s not news to our Aboriginal neighbours — we used biological and physical techniques of genocide when we could get away with it.

If we really want to move ahead as a nation, reconcile with Aboriginal peoples, and ensure “Never again!” then an apology for their inhumane treatment in state sanctioned research experiments is not enough. Our government needs to put the pieces together and acknowledge that we did try to eliminate First Nations, Metis and Inuit as groups. Thank the Creator that we mostly failed.

Rochelle Johnston is pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Toronto on bystanding behavior in the context of colonial genocides. She has also worked for over a decade in various capacities as an advocate for the rights of young people in Canada and Sudan.