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  • The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada presented its final report on the Indian Residential Schools.

    The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada presented its final report on the Indian Residential Schools. | Photo: Reuters

What happened in residential schools were criminal acts back then, just as they are now. If there is to be true reconciliation, there must be justice.

What happened in residential schools was not “cultural genocide.” It wasn’t “language genocide.” And it wasn’t “almost genocide.”

What happened in residential schools was genocide.

Whether or not one agrees with the term, the actions in these schools by Canadian and church officials were crimes. The issue is whether these state officials involved will ever be brought to justice.

Commentators often refer to Duncan Campbell Scott’s quote regarding Indian policy in Canada as proof that the intention was assimilation and not elimination. Scott was the deputy superintendent general for the Department of Indian Affairs from 1913 to 1932, who explained in 1920:

“I want to get rid of the Indian problem … 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.”

However, there is more to the story than this. In 1907, Dr. Peter Bryce, the Chief Medical Officer for the federal government, wrote a report on the conditions in residential schools that detailed the astounding number of deaths of Indian children in those schools. He was fired for his advocacy, but the government’s own lawyer also warned Canadian officials in 1907 that:

“Doing nothing to obviate the preventable causes of death, brings the Department within unpleasant nearness to the charge of manslaughter.”

RELATED: Canada Was Killing Indians, Not Cultures

Yet, there was no shock and alarm about facing a charge of manslaughter, nor did anyone from Indian Affairs come up with an emergency action plan to protect Indigenous children whom Scott referred to as “inmates.”

Surprisingly, the deaths of these “inmates” appeared to be in line with the objective of the policy. In 1910, Scott explained in a letter he wrote to one of his Indian Agents:

“Indian children … die at a much higher rate [in residential schools] than in their villages. But this alone does not justify a change in the policy of this Department, which is geared towards a final solution of our Indian problem.”

Survivor stories of frequent rapes, forced abortions, and unmarked graves stand in stark contradiction to any notion of a benign education policy. Why else did these schools have graveyards instead of playgrounds?

Residential schools were never a well intended policy “gone wrong” as claimed by former Minister of Indian Affairs John Duncan. They were death camps for nearly half of all the children, or “inmates,” who entered those schools. The tiny handcuffs and the electric chairs speak of horrors completely unrelated to “education.”

These children didn’t die from smallpox or some other series of unfortunate and unpreventable events in those schools. Nutritional tests and medical experimentations were done on these children only to be denied to benefit of the very medicines created at the expense of their suffering.

Survivor stories of frequent rapes, forced abortions, and unmarked graves stand in stark contradiction to any notion of a benign education policy. Why else did these schools have graveyards instead of playgrounds?

It is too easy for politicians to claim “cultural genocide” now, when they are well aware that cultural genocide was specifically left out of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

Leaders ought to be held accountable if they knew or should have known about the actions and failed to prevent them. Direct evidence of intent is not necessary but can be inferred from circumstantial evidence.

Genocide, by the U.N. definition, is said to include:

- “Killing members of the group;

- Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

- Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

- Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; and

- Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

What is particularly striking is the genocidal act of deliberately creating the conditions of life meant to bring about the destruction of the group in whole or in part, like:

- “subjecting the group to a subsistence diet;

- systematic expulsion from homes;

- denial of right to medical services;

- creation of circumstances that would lead to a slow death, such as lack of proper housing, clothing and hygiene or excessive work or physical exertion; and

- rape.”

In residential schools, children were forcibly removed, starved, denied medical care, and many suffered slow deaths. Genocide is the material destruction of a group or part of a group. There is no set number of people that must be killed for the crime of genocide to occur. It does not need to mimic the worst holocaust to be genocide.

What happened in residential schools were criminal acts back then, just as they are now. All of the people who had the power to stop these deaths, like the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Indian Affairs and the churches, not only knew about the deaths, but refused to act. At the very least, that is criminal negligence causing death.

We will never get to reconciliation unless we know the truth – all of it. So far, we have only scratched the surface. Residential schools can’t be looked at in isolation. We need to look at all Indian policy: forced sterilizations, child abductions, murdered and missing women and prison over-representation.

We are targeted because we are Indians. Indigenous Nations stand in the way of unfettered land and water use, resource extraction and industrial development – i.e. complete environmental destruction in the name of corporate profit.

Justice Murray Sinclair and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) team have done the impossible – they succeeded in ensuring the voices of survivors were heard, that the atrocities committed in residential schools were documented, and that the truth be told.

In addition to the incredible emotional and psychological toll this must have taken on Justice Sinclair and his team, they stood strong in the face of the most aggressive anti-First Nation government Canada has had in years. They, together with the survivors, are true heroes.

RELATED: Canada’s Disappeared Indigenous Women

But we can’t expect the TRC to carry this burden alone. Nor is this story complete.

The TRC went as far as it could to address the issue of genocide in the face of various legal considerations and consistent political denial that these schools were anything other than well-intended educational institutions.

It’s on the rest of us to stand up for the truth and ensure Canadians know everything that happened in the schools covered in this report and the ones not yet exposed.

Canada tried in various ways to eliminate our cultures – through residential schools and outlawing our ceremonies and practices in the Indian Act. This is all true. But Canada also created the conditions which led to our deaths by the thousands inside and outside residential schools. This is also true and this is genocide.

Once we can put the truth in the table, then we can talk about reconciliation. We need to act on the TRC recommendations related to truth-seeking: a national inquiry on murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls, an investigation into the over-representation of Indigenous peoples in prison, and immediate action and reporting on the over-representation of Indigenous children in foster care.

The Indian day school class action has just been accepted by the courts and that will likely also reveal similar abuses suffered by Indian children in even more schools.

The mass murder or manslaughter of our people requires criminal prosecution – just like it would anywhere else in the world. Canada doesn't receive a "Get out of Jail free" card simply because it said “sorry.” Real reconciliation requires justice.

Dr. Pamela D. Palmater is an Associate Professor and Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University.


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