No Justice for Canada’s First Peoples by Thomas King, June 11, 2015, The New York Times
Image: Matt Chase
I BELIEVE in justice. I can’t say I’ve seen that much of it in my lifetime, but I like the concept.
On June 2, the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its executive summary on the ill-advised system of government-mandated, church-run residential schools that persisted until 1998. For over a century the program sanctioned the kidnapping of native children from their families and communities. All under the guise of education.
Canada’s Forced Schooling of Aboriginal Children Was ‘Cultural Genocide,’ Report Finds JUNE 2, 2015
Now that the commission has finished its work, now that politicians have had their time in front of the cameras, there is every indication that the governmental song and dance around the critical and longstanding matters of land and treaty rights will continue, and that native people will be left, once again, with vague and lumpy promises “to consider the issues at a later date.”
The 130-plus residential schools that operated in Canada emerged from the mid-19th century’s love affair with Christianity and the ideology of assimilation. In 120 years, more than 150,000 Aboriginal children were dragged, literally, kicking and screaming into the waiting arms of Canadian paternalism.
One hundred and twenty years of neglect and malnutrition. One hundred and twenty years of physical, mental and sexual abuse. One hundred and twenty years of cultural genocide.
Mortality rates at some schools reached 50 percent.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission came into being as a requirement of the 2006 Indian Residential Schools Settlement agreement, itself a product of the largest successful class-action suit in Canadian history. It was not created out of any largess on the government’s part. Perhaps that’s why, when the commission’s 94 recommendations came to the floor of Parliament, the prime minister thanked the commission, noting simply that it “has spent a long time on this report” and that “it has issued a large number of recommendations.”
Which is the political equivalent of “so long and thanks for all the fish.”
Had this been a royal commission on tar sands development or a white paper on tax breaks for corporations, the recommendations would have been applauded, but as the report was on Canada’s native population, the folks in power were able to curb their enthusiasm, opting instead to wait to see the full report.
Just another day at the office.
Here’s what’s most likely to happen. Those recommendations that are, in large part, cosmetic or symbolic may well be adopted. Any recommendations with price tags attached — funding for improved health care on reserves — or recommendations that might open the government to legal action will be ignored.
Sure, that’s cynical, and I wish I were wrong. It’s just that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report is not the first narrative of its kind. In 1907, Dr. Peter Bryce, the chief medical officer for Indian affairs in Canada, submitted a report, the results of which were buried by Ottawa until 1922, when Dr. Bryce published his findings as a book in which he called the health conditions at residential schools “a national crime.”
In 1928, Lewis Meriam released a report on similar residential schools in the United States. It concluded that they were crowded beyond their capacity, that disease was rampant, and that the rate of 11 cents a day for each native child was wholly inadequate. The report was so comprehensive and so damning that the United States never commissioned another such study.
Why ask the question if you know you won’t like the answer?
Only the Canadians persisted with such inquiries.
In 1966-67, the Hawthorn Report was published, reiterating the basic conclusions of the reports that had come before, while in 1996, the five-volume report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples traced native and nonnative history.
So what’s the benefit of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission? There are a number of answers, but the most important is that it gave the people most affected by the abuses of residential schools an occasion to have their voices heard, to have their stories recorded. It gave them the chance to speak the truth and to speak it loud.
Will it help? Who knows. Maybe it will. Maybe it won’t. But for the commissioners and especially for those people who lived through the distress and fear and shock of residential school life and who were brave enough to tell their stories, those moments were powerful and possibly, just possibly, even healing.
One can hope.
Of course, the report is not to blame for government intransigence. It’s a fine document, painstakingly researched and well written. The commissioners are to be commended. I especially enjoyed those moments that paired a little humor with serious concerns. One of my favorites was the recommendation to amend the Oath of Citizenship every new Canadian has to take. If Justice Murray Sinclair and the commission have their way, the new version would include swearing to “observe the laws of Canada including treaties with indigenous peoples.”
Imagine that. Made me smile. But then I happen to like irony almost as much as I like justice.
Thomas King’s latest book is “The Back of the Turtle.” [Emphasis added]
WATCH: Chief Justice McLachlin’s complete speech: Reconciling Unity and Diversity in the Modern Era: Tolerance and Intolerance by Hon. Beverley McLachlin, P.C., Chief Justice of Canada At the Aga Khan Museum, Toronto, Ontario, May 28, 2015
Chief Justice says Canada attempted ‘cultural genocide’ on aboriginals by Sean Fine, May 28, 2015, The Globe and Mail
Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin says Canada attempted to commit “cultural genocide” against aboriginal peoples, in what she calls the worst stain on Canada’s human-rights record.
Genocide – an attempt to destroy a people, in whole or part – is a crime under international law. The United Nations’ Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, adopted in 1948, does not use the phrase “cultural genocide,” but says genocide may include causing serious mental harm to a group.
Chief Justice McLachlin appears to be the highest-ranking Canadian official to use the phrase. Former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin used it two years ago in describing residential schools for aboriginal children when he testified before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up by the Conservative government. That commission is to make its report public next week.
“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,” Chief Justice McLachlin said. She was delivering the fourth annual Pluralism Lecture of the Global Centre for Pluralism, founded in 2006 by the Aga Khan, spiritual leader of Ismaili Muslims, and the federal government.
After an initial period of inter-reliance and equality, she said Canada developed an “ethos of exclusion and cultural annihilation.”
“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.” She made clear that this treatment extended well into the 20th century.
John Borrows, Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Law at the University of Victoria, called the Chief Justice’s use of the term “unparalleled” in Canadian history.
He said the term is unlikely to have legal consequences, but carries symbolic importance coming from the Chief Justice. “A lot of indigenous people and other people have been asking for that word to be part of our vocabulary because it does more fully communicate the weight of what happened.”
Peter Russell, a political science professor emeritus at the University of Toronto, said that Chief Justice McLachlin shares with virtually all Supreme Court judges since a landmark rights case in 1990 “a tremendous sense of sorrow about the denial of very fundamental rights to Canada’s native people.”
Chief Justice McLachlin, who has been on the court since 1989 and chief since 2000, is its longest-serving chief justice. She cited early laws barring treaty Indians from leaving reservations, rampant starvation and disease and the denial of the right to vote.
She also pointed to the outlawing of aboriginal religious and social traditions, such as the potlatch and the sun dance, and to residential schools, in which children who had been taken from their parents “were forbidden to speak their native languages, forced to wear white man’s clothing, forced to observe Christian religious practices and sometimes subjected to sexual abuse.
The objective was to ‘take the Indian out of the child,’ and thus to solve what John A. Macdonald referred to as the ‘Indian problem.’”
The event was held in partnership with The Globe and Mail. [Emphasis added]