Federal official wanted emails deleted outlining plan to stonewall on residential school genocide questions

Federal Aboriginal Affairs officials planned to stonewall and avoid public questions about comments made by their minister, emails obtained by APTN National News show.

By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
Federal Aboriginal Affairs officials planned to stonewall and avoid public questions about comments made by their minister, emails obtained by APTN National News show.

The internal government documents also show a communications manager wanted to delete those emails, which discussed the department’s plan on dealing with fallout from controversial comments Minister John Duncan made about Indian residential schools.

Duncan ignited outrage last fall among many former residential school students when he said the system was the result of an “education policy gone wrong.”

He also said he didn’t believe the residential school system was an act of genocide, but admitted that if continued it would have been “lethal” to First Nations culture.

“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 it had extended for another generation or two it might have been lethal, yes,” said Duncan.

Duncan made the comments in October while announcing his government would be commissioning a stained-glass window in honour of residential school students and install it on Parliament Hill.

Duncan’s comments on residential schools and genocide, however, overshadowed the announcement.

Duncan’s constituency and ministerial offices received numerous outraged emails from the public over the comments, documents obtained under the Access to Information Act show.

Federal communications officials at Aboriginal Affairs, however, decided they would not respond to any questions on the issue, the documents show.

“There will be no messaging prepared to address this issue,” according to text contained in an email from Dianne Clarke, director general for communications. “The minister and all spokespersons know they are not to speak to it.”

Clarke’s email followed one sent earlier in the day by Katelin Peltier, acting manager for communications, to Aideen Nabigon, director general for the department’s residential school settlement agreement policy and partnership section.

“I have been advised that if spokespersons are approached to not speak or answer… I am sure we won’t see a ‘line’ on this,” wrote Peltier.

At the end of the Oct. 28, 2011, email string discussing the issue, Peltier requested the emails be deleted.

“Can you guys delete these emails?” wrote Peltier, to three other officials, including Clarke, and Sylvie Mercier, a director for the department’s public affairs directorate.

A federal Aboriginal Affairs spokesperson said department officials follow set guidelines on handling internal emails.

“(The department’s) directive on electronic mail management requires employees to document decisions and decision making processes,” said the spokesperson in an emailed statement. “(The department) recommends saving business records to meet record keeping requirements and…deleting personal and transitory messages from the account as quickly as possible.”

The documents show that department officials realized they had a sensitive issue on their hands after APTN National News aired Duncan’s comments along with the reaction from residential school students.

The response from the public proved them right.

“It is appalling that a representative of the Crown…and a federal cabinet minister who is mandated with a critical fiduciary responsibility to the First Nations people of this country would deny that the genocidal intent of Canada in collusion with the churches and RCMP happened,” said one email sent to Duncan’s office, the prime minister’s office and the office of Conservative Senator Patrick Brazeau. “The United Nations definition of genocide is very clear and the residential school systems meet that criteria.”

The name of the email’s author is blacked-out under privacy laws that cover the release of all emails originating from the public.

“I demand an apology and explanation on national television that Canada did in fact purposefully employ genocide as a tactic to ‘to kill the Indian in the child,'” said another email to Duncan. “You have done great harm to my people with your hurtful comment. You have driven a verbal knife into old wounds only freshly healing.”

One writer called on Duncan to quit.

“Please ask Minister John Duncan to resign,” said another email addressed to Duncan that came from a University of Calgary email account. “The minister’s actions are violation of the Charter…his position mandates knowledge and sensitivity, not object denial of the truth.”

Another email writer said Duncan’s comments undercut Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s 2008 apology to residential school students.

“The clear contradiction between(Harper’s) words in Canada’s official apology and (Duncan’s) words while making a formal announcement…is a clear example of insincerity, hollow words and blatant political indemnification on Canada’s part in issuing this apology.”

The email includes a section of the UN convention on genocide which includes “forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

University of Manitoba professor Christopher Powell recently published a book arguing that Indian residential schools fit the UN definition of an act of genocide because the aim was to wipe out a culture.

“Canadians like to think we are a moral country, that we are good guys. A lot of Canadians recognize that the residential schools were painful, that there was abuse,” said Powell, in a recent interview. “But there isn’t still a widespread recognition that they were part of a systematic attempt to eliminate by force Aboriginal culture.”

In 1920, Duncan Campbell Scott, the deputy superintendent for the formerly named Indian Affairs department, said the aim of residential schools was to “get rid of the Indian problem” in Canada forever.

“I want to get rid of the Indian problem,” said Scott. “Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question and no Indian department.”

Under Scott, it became mandatory for all children between seven and 15 to attend residential schools.

The federal government, with the help of the RCMP, forcibly seized Aboriginal children away from their parents and put them into church-run residential schools where they were forbidden to speak their own languages and often faced physical and sexual abuse.

Some of the children died at the schools, mostly from sickness and disease, but also from beatings.

Research done by professor John Milloy on behalf of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission suggests that many of these children’s bodies were buried in unmarked graves.

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Online Producer / Ottawa

Before moving to become the APTN News social media producer, Mark was the executive producer for the news in eastern Canada. Before starting with APTN in 2009, Mark worked at CBC Radio and Television in Newfoundland and Labrador and Ottawa.

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