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Instead of Celebrating Pride in a Genocide, It is Time to Listen

Updated: Jul 3, 2021

Trigger Warning: Includes mentions of violence against children, colonial violence, death, sexual assault, lynching, and experimentation on children.

“If the Indians were to disappear from the continent, the Indian problem would cease to exist”

~John A. MacDonald Statement in the Canadian House of Commons May 5th 1880

“in my opinion [Mr.Scott’s remarks] presented the ideal and correct solution of the whole Indian problem, ... not perhaps for 100 years hence, but some day, in Canada, there would be no ‘Indian problem.’

~MP Frank B. Stacey Statement in the Canadian House of Commons June 23rd 1920

When I was in the seventh grade, I first learned about the banning of the potlach ceremony in the Pacific Northwest. It occupied a single paragraph in our social studies text book, I remember learning that it was bad, but not worth dedicating anything more than a paragraph to.

Perhaps I would have understood its impact more if my text book had included the story the Kwakwaka'wakw nation’s Dan Cranmer shared by the The U'mista Cultural Society. In 1921 the ban on the Potlach had already been in place for 37 years. For nearly four decades the government of Canada had attempted to destroy these ceremonies central to the cultural practices of many First Nations on the Pacific Northwest Coast. It had not succeeded. While Indigenous Peoples had persisted, the ban had in effect, pushed the ceremonies underground. At Christmas of that year Cranmer of the Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw (KWOK-wok-ya-wokw) First Nation on the coast of present-day British Columbia, had planned a potlach. Federal authorities caught wind of it and moved in, they arrested 45 people and gave them the choice to surrender their potlach regalia, to prevent future ceremonies, or go to jail. Twenty-two chose jail, and the authorities ended up confiscating over 600 pieces of sacred heirlooms and treasured regalia. They were transported in the open (counter to the strict tradition of the Kwakwaka'wakw as the items were sacred) and displayed on benches of the church in nearby Alert Bay. People were charged admission and some came to buy items to take away to museums in the US and other parts of Canada. Before the plunder began, some from the Kwakwaka'wakw nation visited the church as a member recounted:

“... my uncle took me to the Parish Hall, where the Chiefs were gathered. Odan picked up a rattle and spoke, ‘We have come to say goodbye to our life,’ then he began to sing his sacred song. All of the Chiefs, standing in a circle around their regalia were weeping, as if someone had died.”

~(James Charles King, at Alert Bay, 1977) (Quoted from Living Tradition Virtual Exhibit, 2016).

Chief and artist Xi’xa'niyus, also known as Bob Harris (c. 1870 – c. 1930) with his wife, Tlakweł or Mary Harris (née Mountain, daughter of Chief Nage’), Alert Bay, 1913

The banning of the potlach ceremony was not a footnote in the history of Canada.

Instead it was a concerted effort to destroy the foundations of community, life, and celebration among many First Nations.

My ignorance to this story and countless others like it no longer surprises me. As I try and learn more about the history of Canada, I am continuously astonished at how much I didn’t learn, and how much unlearning I still need to do. I have been grateful to many Indigenous authors, artists, and academics for providing so many resources on which I could expand my knowledge. I have included them throughout and at the end. Nothing I lay out below is new, none of it is my own, it has been shown again, and again, and again by many incredible people. As I have been guided by these activists, authors and leaders, what I have began to see more clearly than anything else, is the lack of listening by the government of Canada and by fellow settler Canadians.

While some settler Canadians have learned of the ways in which settlers to the new lands acted, I believe most still do not understand how Indigenous communities have been insulted, lied to, and displaced from their own land for more than 400 years. I think most still do not understand the depth of the destruction. I write this for them. I have been trying to write this piece for a long time. Two years ago my first draft included this, “…thanks to the Truth and Reconciliation commission the horrors of the residential schools have been revealed and have hopefully entered into the consciousness of Canadians in a larger way.” I think the past month has shown this to be very far from the truth. However, I fear, for many settler Canadians these horrors remain locked in the past, a “dark chapter” in Canadian history. In fact, during the relationship between settlers and Indigenous Peoples, these abuses have not ceased.

**A note on language: There have been many egregious terms that have riddled the landscape of the relationship with Indigenous peoples and Canada. I will use the term “Indian” only when necessary in names of legislation or direct quotes, fully recognizing that the term is in no way appropriate. Living on the land we call Canada today there are Inuit, Metis, and more than 630 First Nation communities, I will use the term Indigenous Peoples when speaking broadly or specific nations names when speaking about them. I will also use the term settler Canadians for non-Indigenous people, as those individuals who were not initially on the land we now call Canada have all descended from people settled on the land.

Just over two years ago The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls released their final report. In it the inquiry stated that the ongoing violence it heard during the inquiry, “amounts to a race-based genocide of Indigenous Peoples, including First Nations, Inuit, and Métis, which especially targets women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people.” Ongoing, not in the past. The response was swift, and while there were some voices that advocated for using the term many in Indigenous communities have been saying for years, the majority of media outlets responded with editorials and opinion pieces saying the inquiry had gone too far. They argued that, while what had happened to Indigenous people since colonization began was an injustice, invoking the vernacular of the most heinous of all crimes, genocide, was inappropriate.

I remember the first time I heard the word genocide connected to colonization in Canada. I bristled at the term. Surely not in the country I had grown up to think was good, multicultural, and a bastion of freedom and rights in the world! Maybe Canada’s intentions used to be bad, but they were better now, weren’t they? As a student of history, I had studied in depth the atrocities of the Holocaust, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Armenia. Surely Canada could not still be perpetuating something this egregious. For a time, I settled on the middle term that the current prime minister prefers: “cultural genocide”. A term that is dubiously evasive, as if that cultural qualifier somehow lessens the horror. What are a people without their political and social institutions, language, belief systems, and land? What is a people without a culture?

The Intent of the Settlers

In his 1945 essay Genocide - a Modern Crime, Raphael Lemkin elaborated on the term he had coined a few years earlier. He explained that, “the term does not necessarily signify mass killing although it may mean that,” instead he clarified that,

“more often it refers to a coordinated plan aimed at destruction of the essential foundations of the life of national groups so that these groups wither and die like plants that have suffered a blight. The end may be accomplished by the forced disintegration of political and social institutions, of the culture of the people, of their language, their national feelings and their religion. It may be accomplished by wiping out all basis of personal security, liberty, health and dignity. When these means fail the machine gun can always be used as a last resort.”

Although 49 people from his extended family had died from the horrors of the Holocaust, Lemkin recognized that the danger of genocide did not start in the gas chambers of Auschwitz or Dachau, but instead with a systematic strategy of dehumanization, superiority, and cold logical strategic machinations of eliminating a people. Killing was always the last step.

In the past few years my thinking has changed. As I have had the privilege of learning more from the wisdom of Indigenous artists, authors, and media personalities, I realized how much was hidden from me and how much I didn’t seek out. I realized that the genocide of Indigenous Peoples was something Canada needed to recognize in its founding, and I needed to recognize in my identity as a Canadian. When the Inquiry into MMIWG report was released and the furor around the word started, I began to realize that while many people believed that Canada’s actions in the past were wrong, they held on to this misguided notion, that there is no way this persisted until today. This argument hinges on one central element. The intent of the settlers. You cannot commit unintentional genocide, genocide by accident. While many settler Canadians may not have learned about it, for a long time Canada has made its intent clear, perhaps most explicitly in 1910 by the Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs at the time, Duncan Campbell Scott.

“It is readily acknowledged that Indian children lose their natural resistance to illness by habitating so closely in these schools, and that they die at a much higher rate than in their villages. But this alone does not justify a change in the policy of this Department, which is being geared towards the final solution of our Indian Problem.”

Read that a second time if you need to. Read it out loud, slowly.

The intent of this “final solution” was the elimination of all Metis, Inuit, and First Nations cultures, a strategy which had begun hundreds of years before. There is no doubt the genocidal intent was clear in 1910. So if the intent was clear then, I began to wonder when did it start? And if it is no longer happening, as some argue, when did the intent change?

Initial Intent

For thousands of years before settlers arrived, Indigenous nations had formed, broken, and renegotiated complex political alliances all over Turtle Island and formed treaties to allow for resource sharing and coexistence. As the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal People explained, the early years of contact between settlers and Indigenous Peoples was formed through nation-to-nation relations and mutual respect. However, by the 1800’s, as the number of settlers swelled, this respect vanished and gave way to settler destruction.

This shift in relationships began shortly after the Royal Proclamation in 1763. This I have learned is an incredibly influential document to this day. The Proclamation outlined how the British Government would engage with Indigenous Peoples and declared the land west of the established colonies, as "Indian Territories", where Indigenous peoples "should not be molested or disturbed.” It was agreed that the land roughly west of the Great Lakes would not be inhabited by settlers.

Map shoing the demarcation line in the 1763 Royal Proclamation

However, shortly after this proclamation those new to the land made their intent clear as they began settling over the lines that had been drawn. It set the precedent of breaking treaties and legislating towards the advancement of settlers while attempting to ignore, eliminate, restrict and destroy the lives and culture of Indigenous peoples.

Moving forward from 1763 the intent of settlers has not wavered.

That’s The Way It Was Back Then

A common refrain I heard when I was younger about this hidden history of Canada was, “well that was how it was back then.” We hear it today when people defend behaviours of individuals from the past based on today’s standards of humanity. Admittedly the current “standard” is still lacking but regardless, the shortcomings of individuals whose legacy has been preserved and can be observed cannot be looked at through as though it is dead and gone. The truth is the same mentality is still alive and well. It is also incredibly condescending to look at history only through the lens of colonization. While white people at the time may have somehow misguidedly believed what they were doing was correct, those being oppressed could plainly see the intent of the settlers, and said so many times over. Yet, no one wanted to listen.

In 1857 when the Parliament of the Province of Canada passed the Gradual Civilization Act it began the formalization of attempting to erase the cultures of Indigenous peoples. It allowed Indigenous Peoples, if they wished to and if a panel of non-Indigenous reviewers decided they were of “good character,” to choose to become a subject of the british empire. However, if they decided to do this it meant they would no longer retain the "legal rights and abilities of Indians" and would "no longer be deemed an Indian," meaning all rights to their land would be stripped away. Indigenous people at the time saw this act for what it was, another method to expedite their erasure, and said so at a meeting in Onondaga Council House on the Six Nations reserve in southern Ontario in 1858. They asserted this scheme attempted to "blast their dearest hopes as a race," recognizing that the act was designed to "break them to pieces."

Although only one individual ever pursued this avenue, it laid the ground work for the passing of the Indian Act.

The intent was clear when the Government of Canada reaffirmed their genocidal intent as they passed the Indian Act; the legislation which still regulates the lives of Indigenous Peoples in Canada today. Passed originally in 1876 the act continued to formalize what Lempkin describes as the “forced disintegration of political and social institutions, of the culture, of the people, of their language, their national feelings and their religion.” The act is a complex and varied document that has been amended many times and a wonderful synopsis has been done here by the Secret Life of Canada and a book here.

Slowly the law passed by the members of parliament began to hack away at all aspects of Indigenous life with the aim of breaking the chain of generational knowledge and traditions. The goal was to eventually assimilate the entirety of the Indigenous population and eliminate what remained of their cultures, beliefs, and languages by taking a sledgehammer to the very core of Indigenous communities. This was done intentionally, just three or four generations ago. The viewpoints held by these MPs and the majority of settler Canadians at the are still overtly and covertly held.

Some of the more egregious parts of the act, denied women status (undermining and destroying the matriarchal systems that existed in many Indigenous nations), made it illegal for an Indigenous person to hire a lawyer, introduced residential schools, and outlawed the potlach and other traditional ceremonies. The purpose was to obliterate the way of life that existed and force Indigenous people to assimilate or perish.

John A. Macdonald said so in 1887,

“The great aim of our legislation has been to do away with the tribal system and assimilate the Indian people in all respects with the other inhabitants of the Dominion as speedily as they are fit to change.”

The Indian Act’s genocidal intent was made clear as it marked the beginning of the implementation of the residential school system which harboured rampant physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. The inter generational trauma this system has begot for Indigenous peoples and the horrors it perpetuated has been chronicled extensively by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but it bears mentioning here.

The intent was to break the culture away from the People, not allow them to speak their language, not allow them to see their parents, cut their hair (only done during certain periods of mourning in some Indigenous cultures), not allow them to practice any of their cultural or spiritual beliefs, and force them to convert to Christianity. From 1876 onward the children of these communities were being taken from their homes by force and sent far away to be forced to forget everything they had ever known. This week more of these horrors were unmasked. What is it if not pure human evil from those that ran the schools and let children die, with no records, in unmarked graves, stealing their identity, dignity and stories

While the government was stealing away indigenous peoples’ children, on the plains it was also trying to obliterate all pillars of society. Some of the best evidence of the genocidal intent of the settlers has been laid out by historian James Daschuk in his 2013 book Clearing The Plains. As he lays out in a talk here, while settlers increased their presence across the plains the newly formed nation of Canada did everything in its power to destroy Indigenous Peoples’ way of life. The Indigenous Peoples living on the plains, witnessed the decimation brought about by the greed and settlers’ insatiable appetite for bison hides. For more than 11,000 years, eleven centuries, people on the plains had lived in balance with and relied upon the bison for clothing, homes, food, and tools, and the bison hunt had given rise to and supported, complex social, political and cultural institutions.

Yet within only 100 years the population of 30 million Bison was reduced to less than 1,000. The settlers would take only the hides and let the meat of the animals to rot. An immense waste and extermination on a scale that was unfathomable to people that understood that the destruction of the bison meant the destruction of life.

Settlers posing in front of bison skulls

The Canadian government understood the impact the destruction of the bison was having, with reports from the plains speaking about the Indigenous population being, “very poorly off, starving in fact.”

Indigenous leaders also recognized that the reckless extermination of the bison would be disastrous for their populations and, since they knew the settlers would not stop until the bison were gone, they negotiated food aid into many treaty negotiations they were taking part in during the mid 1800’s. As soon as the ink had dried the government began to use this aid as a tool to coerce, ridicule, and starve the population. In 1880 Macdonald told the parliament not to worry about how much they were spending on feeding Indigenous People as the government ensured they would, “require absolute proof of starvation,” before food was to be distributed.

In 1882 the government took advantage of the increasing lack of food for Indigenous Peoples by telling them they could only receive food aid if they moved onto a reserve. Immediately the government began to abuse this control of food resources, in 1884 Chief Poundmaker of the Plains Cree faced the wrath of the local Indian agent after he and other leaders demanded to speak to him. This simple demand alone led to his band being stricken off the ration roll for eight days.

Why didn’t they just grow their own food?

Indigenous Peoples growing their own food was also systematically and strategically restricted by the government. The Indian Act ensured a permit was required for anything to be sold off the reserve. While the government spoke of trying to aid Indigenous Peoples in growing food, in reality there was no facilities on the reserves for people to grind what they grew, wheat or barley, into usable flour. If they were able to obtain a pass when they went to settler grinding mills the racism of neighbouring settler populations meant they would be served last or not at all. If they could not get their product ground before their pass ran out, they would have to return to the reserve empty handed.

The Government of Canada then decided that the lack of success of Indigenous farmers was not due to the systematic barriers they had put in place, but instead due to the fact that these farmers had never been peasants. Based on the egregious racial science of the time the government believed that Indigenous people should first learn to “be peasants,” as settlers had, and introduced the Peasant Farming Policy in 1889, taking away all mechanical tools and only allowing hand tools! Reports began to emerge of crops rotting in the fields, and Indigenous farming never recovered.

To further display how clear the intent was, the vile story of the governments murder of 8 Cree men must be included. The government created a public spectacle around the hanging of these men at Battleford in 1885. With their people starving, decimated by disease, and reeling from the destruction of the bison, Cree warriors fought back and killed 8 people at Frog Lake. These included an Indian Agent named Thomas Quinn who had gathered starving Indigenous people at the ration house in 1884, only to turn them away informing them it was an April Fools joke.

When the government caught 8 men it felt were responsible, they sought to make a display of the strength of the government through their deaths. They set the date. They did not leave it at that. They brought children from the nearby residential schools, and arranged to hand out rations on the same day all to ensure as many Indigenous people as possible would be present. Macdonald said the purpose of the spectacle should be imposing enough that it, “ought to convince the red man that the white man governs.”

Hundreds of people were brought or coerced to Battleford. When the men were hanged, their bodies were left to, “swing in the wind for 20 mins.”

The intent was clear.

Those that fought back against the destruction of their culture and people would be shown the same fate. Such a conniving, manipulative, retributive act that embodied the very epitome of evil.

There are hundreds of other examples, but perhaps one that fully displays the genocidal intent of the government that fits Lempkin’s definition of genocide of restricting liberty was the “pass system”. This system was illegal, as treaties guaranteed free mobility, yet it continued to be implemented for 60 years. It aimed to prevent Indigenous people to leave the reserves without permission from the local Indian agent. There is a film about it that you can watch for free here.

By 1910 the intent of all of these policies was crystal clear. The government officials at the highest level knew, that Indigenous children were dying directly due to the policies they were enacting. All of the structures of society had been geared towards Lempkin’s definition of genocide as, “wiping out all basis of personal security, liberty, health and dignity.” The Indigenous population would assimilate or be destroyed, either way in the eyes of the settlers, their final solution to the “Indian Problem” would be realized.

The intent was yet again clear in 1922 when the Government of Canada continued building residential schools after alarms were being sounded about the horrible conditions Indigenous children were living in.

In that year Dr. PH Bryce released a report entitled The Story of a National Crime. It laid out the deaths of children and the atrocious management of the residential schools. He found that,

“…regarding the health of the pupils... 24%, of all the pupils which had been in the schools were known to be dead, while of one school on the File Hills reserve, which gave a complete return to date, 75%, were dead at the end of the 16 years since the school opened.”

This followed his 1907 report that had suggested the mortality rate in schools could be as high as 42 percent.

Letter Regarding the Death of Mary Adela Settee of Boniface School 1895 (

In 1922 they knew officially that residential schools lead to children dying at a much higher rate then they would have at home.

Yet, the last residential school closed in 1996, 74 years after Dr. Bryce’s report.

The intent of settlers was still clear when Indigenous people who fought for Canada in the First World War returned to find they could not access the same privileges that settler veterans could. In fact, instead of receiving any benefits from having served Canada in the Great War, when some aboriginal veterans, “returned to their homes on reserves, many discovered that the government had purchased their land in order to sell it to the Soldier Settlement Board. This land was then sold to non-Aboriginal veterans who wanted to become farmers.” Another example of settler’s once again pushing the boundaries and stealing land.

The intent was still clear in the 1940's and 50's when the Dr Percy Moore, the Indian Affairs Branch Superintendent of Medical Services, and Dr Frederick Tisdall, a famed nutritionist, a former president of the Canadian Paediatric Society and one of three paediatricians at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto who developed Pablum infant cereal in the 1930s, authorized experiments to be performed on children in residential schools.

During the experiments, control and treatment groups of mal-nourished children were denied adequate nutrition. As this research lays out, “parents were not informed, nor were consents obtained. Even as children died, the experiments continued.” These experiments were done in residential schools because the dismal rates of malnutrition could not be found in any other sectors of Canadian society at the time.

The intent of Provincial Social Service workers on behalf of the government was clear in the 1950’s when they continued the legacy of taking children away from their families, by beginning what became to be known as the 60’s scoop. As research has shown “in 1951, twenty-nine Aboriginal children were in provincial care in British Columbia; by 1964, that number was 1,466. Aboriginal children, who had comprised only 1 percent of all children in care, came to make up just over 34 percent.” Many of the children removed were placed into homes of white families and told that they should hide or obscure their culture and heritage. The terrible ripple affects of this were captured in the CBC radio podcast Finding Cleo. The legacy of this continues today with Indigenous children heavily over-represented in the child welfare system outlined here.

As Cindy Blackstock outlines here there are more children under the care of the governement today than during the height of the residential school system.

Even as aboriginal leaders, activists, and elders protested each one of these events and many more, the intent to disrupt, destroy, and decimate culture continued to persist. The intent of health workers was clear in the 1970's as they imposed forced sterilization upon hundreds of women without informed consent. This was not just in the 70’s, further inquiry showed it had begun in the 1930’s often with eugenics laws of the time being used as justification. This practice has just started to be researched more thoroughly with the latest reports of forced sterilization occurring in 2018.

Only 40 years ago, the intent of the Government of Canada was clear, as it looked to patriate the country’s constitution and again totally exclude Indigenous Peoples in the process. The 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms would not have included Section 35, which recognizes and affirms Aboriginal Rights. It exists only because of Indigenous perseverance, resilience, and activism.

The government initially was not going to include it at all, attempting again to erase Indigenous Peoples from the nation of Canada. The government did not include this section out of benevolence, but only did so after a two year campaign by Indigenous activists.

These activists chartered trains to carry 1,000 people to protest this erasure. They dubbed it the Constitution Express. A train ride from Vancouver to Ottawa which continued on to New York and crossed the Atlantic to the Netherlands, Germany, France, and Belgium. It put the government in a place where it was almost impossible to not recognize the rights that Indigenous Peoples held. Without these activists, the intent of the government to exclude Indigenous people out of the single most important legal and cultural development in Canada in the 20th century would have been successful.

In 1991 The genocidal intent from one of the highest courts in the country to delegitimize a centuries old culture continued. Chief Justice Allan McEachern in his judgement from the Supreme Court of British Columbia described pre-contact life of the Gitxsan and Wet'suwet'en as "nasty, brutish, and short.” Ruling in the case of Delgamuukw v. British Columbia which would be appealed and won in the Supreme Court of Canada, McEachern gave a judgement that the Canadian Anthropology Society said "gratuitously dismisse[d] scientific evidence, [was] laced with ethnocentric bias and [was] rooted in the colonial belief that white society is inherently superior." After listening to 318 days of evidence of the Gitksan and Wet'suwet'en peoples which taught and displayed their complex political and social structures that had been formed over more than 10,000 years, the justices ignored all of the evidence in front of them, failed to recognize any pre-contact institutions and instead said that the Gitksan and Wet'suwet'en "more likely acted as they did because of survival instincts.”

Part of my own rethinking of my understanding, was aided by a friend who let me borrow this book when I mentioned I was searching for a good history book written from an Indigenous perspective. It is the opening statement of the Gitksan and Wet'suwet'en Hereditary Chiefs in the Supreme Court of British Columbia. It is an incredible record that I felt lucky I was able to read, and was simultaneously enraged that it was not included in every history text book written about Canada.

The intent of settler land developers in 1990 was of course clear when they tried to develop land that the Mohawk people had lived on for more than 6,000 years to expand a golf course on a burial ground. This disrespectful expansion that had already been protested when it was initially built in 1961, was again protested by the Mohawk people and led to the 78 day Oka Crisis.

The intent of the RCMP was clear as they did nothing while during the 1990’s the repugnant robert pickton was stalking the Downtown East Side of Vancouver. As he continued to kidnap and murder marginalized women, many Indigenous, the police ignored calls to investigate, allowing him to continue terrorizing the community.

Moving into the new century the intent of the RCMP did not change. From 2000 to 2011, seven Indigenous high school students died in Thunder Bay, Ontario. The seven were hundreds of miles away from their families, forced to leave home and live in a foreign and unwelcoming city. Five were found dead in the rivers surrounding Lake Superior, below a sacred Indigenous site. Their stories were shared by Tanya Talaga in her book Seven Fallen Feathers which outlines the lack of interest of the RCMP, and the many other failings on the part of all institutions involved.

She also delivered the Massey Lectures in 2018 and it was a fantastic series of talks.

In the last decade and a half, the Government of Canada has attempted to be perceived as righting its wrongs. A 2008 apology to Residential School Survivors in the House of Commons was important, but performed by a conservative government that continued to restrict funds and the rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Just two years ago at the conclusion of the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women it was clear again that the institutions that were meant to protect and comfort, such as the RCMP, who were often responsible for taking children from their families, are still not. They would not cooperate with the inquiry to provide records on many occasions. In the past few years, we have seen clearly the intent of the current government as it, promised a lot about reconciliation yet spent more than the previous conservative government fighting Indigenous Peoples in court.

We still see terrible examples of Indigenous Peoples’ interaction with police such as Allan Adam being violently arrested last year.

This last week we have been reminded yet again of the horrors of residential schools. As we can see it was not a dark chapter in Canada’s past but just one of many chapters of genocidal intent. At every step of its relationship with Indigenous Peoples Canada has attempted as Lempkin said the,

“forced disintegration of political and social institutions, of the culture of the people, of their language, their national feelings and their religion.” The institutions of the country have continued, “wiping out all basis of personal security, liberty, health and dignity.”

It is not genocide as we have come to know it, but instead a slow gruelling decimation of everything that life is made of. One that continues today.

After 400 years, they have not succeeded. The incredible strength and resilience of First Nations, Metis, and Inuit cultures have persevered through attempted destruction of environment, family, home, and culture. Indigenous Peoples were not hapless victims. They resisted every step of the way as settlers have attempted again and again to destroy the foundations of their cultures.

I have heard a lot of terrible arguments that the intent was not bad, that the people of the time thought they were helping, that as we heard this week “some good was done at the schools.” Ripping children away from their families was never good, performing experiments on dying children was never good, burying children in shallow unmarked graves was never good. As the media covered the horrible discoveries in the past few weeks, one statement of a survivor stuck with me. Gerenemo Henry was interviewed in Brantford Ontario and he reflected on how his years in a residential school from 6-17 years old affected himself and his later relationships. “Nobody hugged me, nobody told me goodnight nobody told me ‘I love you’, for eleven years.” These were places where children were brought to crush their spirit, and that attempted destruction has reverberated through lives, families, and communities and generations until today.

Is there a way forward?

Has the intent to perpetuate a 400-year-old genocide changed? It does not seem so. As of today, July 1st, 2021 there are 51 boil water advisories active in Canada, Indigenous Peoples are heavily over represented in the federal prisons in Canada, and still Indigenous Children are being taken away from their families at a much higher rate than settler Canadians.

My only way forward is to listen.

To be honest I was forced to listen, by Jeremy Dutcher. A member of Tobique First Nation in New Brunswick, on his 2018 album Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, Dutcher uses recordings of elders from his First Nation singing songs originally recorded on wax cylinders, and brings them to life in front of audiences. As I sat in the a small theatre in Vancouver as he raised these voices from the dead and amplified them with his operatic baritone voice, tears began to stream down my face. The shell of colonization, of morally good Canadianess had been cracked, there was no turning back.

Of course, listening is not enough, but it can allow settler Canadians to understand how to begin. During the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls one participant noted, “the fact that this National Inquiry is happening now doesn’t mean that Indigenous Peoples waited this long to speak up; it means it took this long for Canada to listen.”

The 94 recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission have still not been implemented. They provide a roadmap of how to begin to address the legacy of residential schools today within Education, Justice, health, child welfare, and all other facets of our society. They are a start.

Listening also means facing the truth, beginning the work of a new Canada, one that begins with the recognition that institutions in the country are still perpetuating grievous harm. It means imagining a way forward, such as this fantastic read by Tanya Talaga to “prove you are who you say you are”.

If we are to live on this land, as settlers, we must show that we are who we say we are. The damage is not in the past, over with, finished. The damage is being done, continuous, ongoing. Settler Canadians must demand more from the government of Canada. This is not enough, it’s never been enough and the time for symbolic acts is long gone. We can start by follow the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to its last detail. They are not mere suggestions, they are solutions for a future of a Canada, I would be proud to be a part of. A Canada full of citizens able to recognize the indelible damage settlers have done to the land and the people on it, and start to demand better from ourselves and our government. Start to imagine a Canada that is true to itself.


A National Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support to former students. This 24-Hour Crisis Line can be accessed at: 1-866-925-4419.

Some Concrete Actions Settlers Can Take

Financial Support – If you are able you can set up a monthly donation to these organizations or many more that are working towards reconciliation Indian Residential School Survivors Society The Native Women’s Association of Canada

Amplifying Support – you can also begin to follow Indigenous authors, activists, authors, and leaders. Listen to them. If you disagree ask yourself why what they have to say makes you so uncomfortable. I have not been good at amplifying and it is something I am trying to do better. Snotty Nosed Rez Kids

Learn – There are many many resources available to continue your journey of learning, I have linked to many throughout and here are a few more.


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