(Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin. Photo courtesy of Roy Grogan)
APTN National News
Canada committed “cultural genocide” against Indigenous peoples through policies like Indian residential schools which were created to wipe out the languages and cultures of pre-existing nations, said the country’s top judge in a speech delivered Thursday.
Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin delivered her remarks as Ottawa prepares for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final national event which begins Sunday.
McLachlin said Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples in the 19th and early 20th Century was aimed at annihilating their culture and language in a bid to solve John A. Macdonald’s ‘Indian problem’ for good.
“In the buzz-word of the day, assimilation; in the language of the 21st Century, cultural genocide,” said the Chief Justice, according to notes of McLachlin’s speech provided to APTN National News. “The most glaring blemish on the Canadian historic record relates to our treatment of the First Nations that lived here at the time of colonization.”
McLachlin said “an initial period cooperative inter-reliance grounded in norms of equality and mutual dependence” was supplanted by “the ethos of exclusion and cultural annihilation.”
She also listed some the tactics Canada used to “solve’ the Indian problem.
“Early laws forbade treaty Indians from leaving allocated reservations. Starvation and disease were rampant. Indians were denied the right to vote. Religious and social traditions, like the Potlatch and the Sun Dances, were outlawed. Children were taken from their parents and sent away to residential schools where they were forbidden to speak their native languages, forced to wear white man’s clothing, forced to observe Christian religious practices, and not infrequently subjected to sexual abuse,” said McLachlin.
McLachlin said for Macdonald and other Canadian officials at the time, “‘Indianess’ was not to be tolerated; rather it must be eliminated.”
McLachlin said Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s 2008 apology and the creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which were both the result of the multi-billion dollar residential school settlement between Ottawa, the churches and survivors, are examples of Canada coming to grips with this dark legacy.
“Yet the legacy of intolerance lives on in the lives of First Nation people and their children—a legacy of too much poverty, too little education and over-representation of Aboriginal people in our courts,” she said. “The lessons from the Canadian experience are replicated where intolerance has been systemically imposed—from Nazi attempts to eliminate Jews, gypsies and homosexuals, to Apartheid of South Africa, to the genocide of Rwanda. Intolerance doesn’t work and imposes enormous and unacceptable costs. Ultimately, the only way forward is the way of tolerance.”
McLachlin delivered the speech during the fourth annual Pluralism Lecture of the Global Centre for Pluralism. The Globe and Mail was one of the sponsors for the event. The Globe and Mail first reported on the speech.
Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner Justice Murray Sinclair has called the Indian residential school policy an act of genocide under the UN definition of the term. Article “e” of the UN definition states genocide includes “forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
Sinclair told the Assembly of First Nations during a speech in Winnipeg this past December that the TRC’s final report, which will be released on Tuesday, will include a section on genocide.
The Harper government has denied Indian residential schools were a form of genocide and has previously ordered spokespeople not to respond to questions on the subject.
Former Aboriginal affairs minister John Duncan, who is now his party’s Whip in the House of Commons, said he didn’t see the residential school system was the result of an “education policy gone wrong.” He said it may have been “lethal” to First Nations culture if it continued.
“I don’t view it that way (as an act of cultural genocide), but it was certainly very negative to the retention of culture and if had extended for another generation or two it might have been lethal,” said Duncan.
The federal Aboriginal Affairs department issued an internal order to stonewall and avoid public questions on the issue after Duncan’s 2011 comment sparked outrage. The senior department official also requested the deletion of emails discussing the plan to avoid dealing with the questions.
Recent academic research has argued that the Indian residential school system does fit the UN definition of genocide.
“Canadians like to think we are a moral country, that we are good guys. A lot of Canadians recognize that residential schools were painful, that there was abuse…But there isn’t a widespread recognition that they were part of a systemic attempt to eliminate by force Aboriginal culture,” said University of Manitoba professor Christopher Powell in a previous interview with APTN on his book, Barbaric Civilization, in which he makes the argument.