I’ve been thinking about genocide quite a bit lately. Most recently this thinking has been spurred by the remarks of Canada’s former Prime Minister, Paul Martin, before our Truth and Reconciliation Commission at a session in Quebec. I’m afraid my blood has gotten into a little bit of a simmer over the responses of “ordinary” Canadians in the “comments” sections of online news stories about Mr. Martin’s remarks. I try to keep to a policy of not looking at those comments, but, even Homer nods. Mr. Martin told the Commission that the Residential School program was, in fact, cultural genocide and that it was time that Canadians face the truth and that they needed to be educated. Online comments have certainly made Mr. Martin’s argument on the last point. For anyone with even a passing, layperson’s acquaintance with the history of the Residential Schools and with legal matters, Mr. Martin’s comment is an unremarkable statement of the obvious. The response his remarks have received suggests that a huge number of Canadians have vanishingly little knowledge of Residential School history and/or of legal matters. It’s long past time for such education, although I have deep and sad doubts that the entrenched bigotry in many quarters of Canadian society against aboriginal people will be overcome easily or quickly.
Let’s look at legal matters.
On July 1, 2002, The Rome Statute came into force and the International Criminal Court was born. Canada had signed on a number of years before the Statute came into effect. The Court was formed to prosecute a number of heinous international crimes, one of which is Genocide. The Rome Statute defines (and States Party such as Canada also define) Genocide in Article 6 thusly:
For the purpose of this Statute, “genocide” means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
Oddly, when Canada’s Criminal Code was amended to “conform” to this international legal standard, clauses (b), (d) and (e) were quietly left out of section 318:
(2) In this section, “genocide” means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy in whole or in part any identifiable group, namely,
(a) killing members of the group; or
(b) deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction.
It must give one pause to wonder why the bits about forcible transfer of children and physical or mental harm – obviously relevant to the Residential School situation – were left out. And one shudders to consider what might be behind the expurgation of the clause concerning prevention of births. Are there still darker secrets in Canada’s history?
Mr. Martin’s comments about “Cultural Genocide” are obviously unremarkable. The Indian Act and the Residential Schools were (and continue to be in the case of the Act) intended to destroy principally by forced assimilation, an ethnic group. Children were (and still are) transferred from their native group (section e). Physical and mental harm has definitely been inflicted (section b) and certainly there have been deaths (section a). I suggest an argument could be made that the reserve system under the Indian Act inflicts conditions of life calculated to bring about the destruction of the group through assimilation and attrition (section c). As I mention above, I shudder to consider the possibility that section (d) has ever been contravened.
Mr. Martin’s description of the Residential Schools as “cultural genocide” is absolutely unremarkable except in the sense that most Canadians seem absolutely unaware of their own history and of the international legalities concerning the crime of genocide. There can be no doubt that the Residential Schools were Canada’s Dirty War. If the program had been the legacy of a right wing dictatorship in Latin America, a racist government in Africa, or a Stalinist regime in the Balkans, right-thinking Canadians would be protesting outside embassies, demanding that those responsible for the atrocities be brought to justice before the ICC. Canadians rightly admired South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the end of Apartheid. Those same Canadians are largely ignorant of our own TRC, and the Canadian Government has been doing everything it can to block the Commission’s work.
I’m thinking now of remarks Wab Kinew made some time ago about the Residential Schools experience and the “Get over it!” suggestion. Kinew says he is over it, but he doesn’t forget it. The issue isn’t for aboriginal Canadians to “Get over it!”: non-aboriginal Canadians are the ones who need to learn, to remember and then we all can finally get over it.
Canadians must be educated about our country’s true history and the tragic, criminal legacy our history has burdened us with. Often I’ve heard or read the horrifically vicious and insensitive comments “Get over it!” and “move on!”. In fact, the point of the TRC and of Mr. Martin’s remarks, is precisely to help society reach the point from which we all may move forward: only by learning and acknowledging the truth can there be reconciliation. Only when Canadians – all Canadians – know the truth of their shared history – only then can we all get over it and move on.
Update, August 1, 2013
I failed to mention above that, while the definition of Genocide in the Criminal Code is lacking, the Criminal Code is not the entire criminal law of Canada. Fortunately for Justice, the Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act (S.C. 2000, c. 24) provides a full definition of the crime by including the Rome Statute definition as a schedule to the Act. So, all five clauses of the definition of the Crime of Genocide in International Law are also the definition – verbatim – of the Crime of Genocide in Canadian Law.
Update, May 28, 2015
Well, two years have gone by since Mr. Martin spoke of “Cultural Genocide”. And, tonight, Beverley McLachlin, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, is being reported to have uttered the same phrase. As reported in the Globe and Mail, Chief Justice McLachlin remarked:
The objective – I quote from Sir John A. Macdonald, our revered forefather – was to ‘take the Indian out of the child,’ and thus solve what was referred to as the Indian problem. ‘Indianness’ was not to be tolerated; rather it must be eliminated. In the buzz-word of the day, assimilation; in the language of the 21st century, cultural genocide.
It is disgraceful that Canadians’ awareness of history is so moribund and distorted that Canada’s Genocide is the subject of breathless news stories when some official uses the G word. Yet more proof that the true history of the Residential Schools and the extended Genocide should be a fundamental part of the core curriculum of Canada’s schools.