The Indian Residential Schools: Yes, It Was Genocide

The following is a continuation from my previous post and part of the serialization of the first draft of my dissertation Unsettling Theology.


Two issues arise immediately. First, was the operation of the Indian residential schools really genocide? After all, the term “genocide” is pretty strong, and one wants to use it correctly and only when justified. In common culture it is associated with the Holocaust, and there is a tendency to emphasise the unique nature of that horrific episode in world history. The second issue is whether this is an important issue for theology, in the sense that it calls into question the way we do theology now.

I answer both questions in the affirmative. First, the operation of the IRS is justifiably described as genocide. To understand what genocide is one needs to look at the history of the term and the UN Convention on Genocide (1947). Article 2 states:

In the present Convention, 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.[1]

The statement by Duncan Campbell Scott in chapter one suggests that there was intent on the part of the Canadian federal government to destroy indigenous peoples as such, mainly by absorbing them into the dominant colonial population. The chief means was through the Indian Residential Schools, and, as noted, the Indian Act enabled the legal apprehension of children from their parents for this purpose; this would seem to be a clear fulfillment of 2.e, “Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” As well, there appeared to be a callous indifference to mortality among the children apprehended, leading to their deaths; this would seem to satisfy 2.a, “Killing members of the group.” It might be argued that the government and churches did not try deliberately to kill the children, but the impression created is that the project was one of “assimilate or die trying.” It is clear that both physical and mental harm was inflicted on the children by the unchecked use of physical punishment and indifferent control of sexual predators, thus contravening 2.b. It is more debatable whether 2.c or 2.d apply, but the schools were part an overall trajectory of domination by colonists that marginalized the indigenous peoples and did result in considerable physical destruction by the loss of their lands and systemic discrimination.

LemkinThe term “genocide” was coined by Raphael Lemkin (1900-1959) in 1944 in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. Lemkin was born a Jewish Pole in the Russian Empire and as a young man studied philosophy in Germany and law in Poland, becoming a prosecutor. Fascinated by atrocities, he sought to understand from a legal perspective the mass murders he knew took place against the Armenians in the Great War and afterwards, and the human-created famine in Ukraine in the 1930s. He escaped Poland to Sweden after the beginning of the Second World War, and made his way to the United States in 1941 where he taught and consulted with the US government. While not fully aware of the Holocaust at that time (although he lost 49 members of his family in it), he had read Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf and was aware of his desire to destroy the Jews and to expand German settlements into Ukraine and Russia. He wrote:

Genocide has two phases: one, destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group: the other, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor. This imposition, in turn, may be made upon the oppressed population which is allowed to remain, or upon the territory alone, after removal of the population and the colonization of the area by the oppressor’s own nationals.[2]

In the wake of the Holocaust it is sometimes assumed that genocide means the complete eradication of a “race”, as Hitler intended towards the Jews, but in fact as originally contemplated by Lemkin and written up in the Convention it involved destruction “in whole or in part”. Lemkin had an expansive understanding of genocide, and gave as an example of religious genocide the persecution of Polish Catholic clergy by Nazi Germany.[3] He wrote:

Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killing of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of the essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. The objectives of such a plan would be disintegration of the political and social institutions of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups. Genocide is directed against the national group as an entity, and the actions involved are directed against individuals, not in their individual capacity, but as members of the national group.[4]

Lemkin drafted the original convention and sought to include linguistic and cultural groups as protected groups – note that the final text only covers a “national, ethnical, racial or religious group” – but this was negotiated out by the diplomats.[5]

There is now an entire academic field concerned with genocide studies (Yale University, Clark University, and the University of Minnesota, for example, all have programs). Recent literature has considered the relationship of colonialism and genocide and its applicability to the Indian Residential Schools.[6] The conclusion is that it probably does, although it is unlikely that any legal case could ever be successfully brought against any party at this time.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded that the Indian Residential Schools were cultural genocide. The commissioners wrote:

The establishment and operation of residential schools were a central element of this policy, which can best be described as “cultural genocide.”

 Physical genocide is the mass killing of the members of a targeted group, and biological genocide is the destruction of the group’s reproductive capacity. Cultural genocide is the destruction of those structures and practices that allow the group to continue as a group. States that engage in cultural genocide set out to destroy the political and social institutions of the targeted group. Land is seized, and populations are forcibly transferred and their movement is restricted. Languages are banned. Spiritual leaders are persecuted, spiritual practices are forbidden, and objects of spiritual value are confiscated and destroyed. And, most significantly to the issue at hand, families are disrupted to prevent the transmission of cultural values and identity from one generation to the next.

In its dealing with Aboriginal people, Canada did all these things.[7]

There has been some pushback against this kind of language. Payam Akhavan, professor of law at McGill University and a former United Nations war crimes prosecutor pointed out in 2013 that cultural genocide was not included in the UN Convention on Genocide, and so using it outside of that well-established legal usage is not helpful. On the other hand, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, the Right Honourable Beverley McLaughlin, approvingly used the term in a speech just prior to the publication of the TRC Final Report.[8] Eminent columnist Lysiane Gagnon critiqued the Chief Justice’s terminology on several counts: first, she felt that in using “inflammatory language” that McLaughlin presented a possible bias that would be problematic when cases involving aboriginal issues came before the court; second, that “the colonization was actually less brutal and cruel in Canada than in the United States and Latin America, or many other parts of the world” and so the word “genocide” is inappropriate; and third, that, condemning our colonial forbears is a kind of presentism, “an intellectual bias by which past events are analyzed outside their historical context, in the light of today’s values.” [9] In her defence Ken Coates, Professor at the University of Saskatchewan defended her use of the term, writing:

the Chief Justice is only stating what is clearly in the minds of judges, lawyers and aboriginal people across the country. There is no use sugar-coating Canada’s mistreatment of indigenous peoples and communities. The country did mean, aggressive and destructive things – albeit often after convincing itself that it was moral, just and forward-looking in doing so.[10]

Regardless of whether or not McLaughlin’s comments are prejudicial, Lysiane Gagnon’s other two criticisms do not stand up. First of all pleading that “Canada was nicer to the Indians than the Americans were” suggests an ignorance of recent historiography. Yes, the history is different, and Canadians prided themselves on being a kinder, gentler nation, but this was a self-serving narrative that ignored demonstrable facts. Second, the accusation of “presentism” is only accurate if no one at the time pointed out the injustice. In fact, numerous individuals did challenge the IRS system and the apprehension of children, beginning with: a) the children who ran away, sometimes at the cost of their lives; b) many of the First Nations parents themselves who hid the children from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police; c) missionaries who criticized the requirement that children live away from their parents and were also aware of the cultural loss, and physical and sexual abuse; and d) medical officers who were horrified at the high mortality rates. These voices, however, were disregarded and marginalized, as they did not fit the dominant narrative.

This dissertation takes the view that it is appropriate to call the Indian Residential Schools a form of genocide. It is qualitatively different from other recognized genocides. It was not the industrialized mass murder of the Jews in the Second World War with paramilitary death squads and death camps, grounded in Hitler’s belief that Jews were a genetic plague upon humanity. It was not the sudden, intense ethnic conflict of neighbor upon neighbor in Rwanda of 1994, the mass murder by the Hutus against the Tutsis. In some ways it is closest to the Holdomor, the famine in the Ukraine in 1931-32 created by the Soviet Union. It is similar because while one may debate the intentionality of the Soviet leadership, the reality is that it was indifferent to the death of millions as it followed its ideological goals. This was compounded with a tendency to see Ukrainians as the same as Russians – any ethnic, cultural, or linguistic differences were ignored, and those who advocated for them were persecuted and murdered. Likewise the Canadian federal government considered indigenous cultures, languages, and spiritualities to be of no moment, and worked towards complete assimilation regardless of the cost in suffering and death.

[1] accessed on May 22, 2017.

[2] Raphael Lemkin, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation – Analysis of Government – Proposals for Redress (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1944), p. 79, quoted in Haifa Rashed & Damien Short “Genocide and settler colonialism: can a Lemkin-inspired genocide perspective aid our understanding of the Palestinian situation?”, The International Journal of Human Rights, 16:8, (2012), pp. 1142-1169; p. 1143.

[3] David B. MacDonald & Graham Hudson, “The Genocide Question and Indian Residential Schools in Canada” in Canadian Journal of Political Science/Revue canadienne de science politique 45:2 (June/juin 2012), pp. 427-449; p. 433.

[4] Raphael Lemkin, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, p. 79, quoted in Haifa Rashed & Damien Short, “Genocide and settler colonialism”, p. 1143.

[5] David B. MacDonald & Graham Hudson, “The Genocide Question and Indian Residential Schools in Canada”, p. 434.

[6] See David B. MacDonald & Graham Hudson, “The Genocide Question and Indian Residential Schools in Canada” in Canadian Journal of Political Science/Revue canadienne de science politique 45:2 (June/juin 2012), pp. 427-449; Leslie Thielen-Wilson, “Troubling the Path to Decolonization: Indian Residential School Case law, Genocide, and Settler Illegitimacy” in Canadian Journal of Law and Society/Revue Canadienne Droit et Société Volume 29, no. 2, pp. 181-197; and Andrew Woolford, “The Next Generation: Criminology, Genocide Studies and Settler Colonialism” in Revista Critica Penal y Poder 2013, No. 5 (September) pp. 163-185.

[7] TRC Final Report Vol. 1, p. 1.

[8] Joseph Brean, “Cultural genocide’ of Canada’s indigenous peoples is a ‘mourning label,’ former war crimes prosecutor says”, National Post, January 15, 2016, accessed May 22, 2017.

[9] Lysiane Gagnon, “McLachlin’s comments a disservice to her court, and to aboriginals”, The Globe and Mail, Jun. 10, 2015 accessed May 22, 2017.

[10] Ken Coates, “McLachlin said what many have long known”, The Globe and Mail, May 29, 2015 accessed May 22, 2017.


About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Baptised 1962. Anglican priest. Fly-paper brain. Husband & Father. Refugees welcome! I remember when Facebook was on paper.
This entry was posted in Canadian Issues, Unsettling Theology and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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