Canada’s Genocide

G​rowing up, I was raised to take pride in my heritage. In particular, my father’s side of the family was proud to come from pioneer stock. The Rintouls came to Canada from Scotland before confederation. They lived in a log cabin and cleared the land to start a farm in the newly created Township of Amaranth in Ontario. They worked hard and endured isolation and disease.

There was a side to that story that we were never told. Nobody from my generation heard this narrative. I’m talking about the Indigenous people of Canada. Now, in later life, I realize that my ancestors were not the romantic heroes of my youth. I still respect them, but the harsh truth is that colonialism swept them up in a wave of oppression against indigenous people. They were settlers, in the worst sense of the word.

This has been on my mind this week as the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls presented its final report. The report is a scathing condemnation of Canada’s treatment of its First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples. We intended Dare to Know to deal with human rights violations in far away places. Over the next little while, we will need to focus on issues here in our own country.

In 2014, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police released a report detailing what native people and their allies already knew. A disturbing number of aboriginal women and girls had disappeared in Canada over the years. Even worse, it seemed that authorities had turned a blind eye to the problem and were complacent about it. After years of political wrangling, the government set up an independent inquiry to look into the systemic causes of this tragedy.

The overarching theme of the report is that the disappearance of these women and girls is genocide. That’s a powerful choice of words but it’s justified. The inquiry uses the original definition of “genocide” used by legal scholar Raphael Lemkin.

“Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.”

Again, this is strong language. The report goes on to show that what has been happening to these women, girls and also to what it calls “2SLGBTQQIA” people, falls well within these criteria. At the root of the oppression is a failure to recognize the indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination. Racist attitudes toward “the Indians” led to the government treating them like children, essentially wards of the state.

Indigenous people were stripped of their culture by forcibly sending them to residential schools. There, teachers forbade them to speak their own language, wear their traditional clothing, take part in their own ceremonies or sing their own songs. I can’t help reminding myself that my proud heritage comes from tearing these helpless children away from theirs.

Health is a human right. Yet, the government of Canada has always viewed its duty to deliver health care to indigenous people as a policy choice rather than an obligation. Native people have been forced onto remote reservations. Reserves are limited to the most basic facilities. They also have limited access to transportation. Even worse, health care professionals have a poor reputation among indigenous people. Typically, they are white people from urban areas and are not trusted as partners in care.

Indigenous peoples view security with the person at the centre. They then look at the social and economic interactions around them. Security means more than being safe from violence. It entails access to health care and social services. We’ve seen that the government didn’t meet these needs. Even if we limit security to personal safety, the fate of indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA people proves that the government has not upheld this basic human right.

Without the right to justice, none of us can demand any of our other rights. The government of Canada has deprived indigenous people of their right to justice in two ways. First, indigenous people have a higher chance of being arrested, charged, convicted and sentenced than other Canadians. Systemic racism pervades our justice system.

Second, the police played a major role in the apprehension of children for the oppressive residential school system mentioned above. As with health care professionals, native people don’t trust them. Their attitude to the missing and murdered women and girls hasn’t helped. Witnesses to the inquiry told stories of complacency and victim blaming that discouraged victims or their families from reporting crimes.

In our next post, we will cover what the Inquiry calls the ‘pathways to colonial violence”. These include trauma, marginalization, defending the status quo, and ignoring indigenous agency. This is a comprehensive inquiry, and it will keep the human rights category at Dare to Know busy for the coming weeks.


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