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Canada’s Cultural Genocide – The Challenging Road to Reconciliation

Students in class at a residential school in Saskatchewan, 1945. Source: Flickr

Canada’s colonialist history is commonly considered a relic of its distant past. It is the prevailing mindset among most Canadians that the damage done to indigenous communities in the process of European settlement has been adequately compensated for, and that the country is in the process of rebuilding relations with its indigenous population. Canada is widely recognized as a nation where ethnic integration has been successful, and thus on the surface there might be little reason to think that problems of integration still exist. In reality, however, Canada still struggles with successful reconciliation with its indigenous community. There continues to be a prevailing marginalization of indigenous peoples, a problem that stems from historical trauma and one that becomes evident by exploring the current Canadian cultural landscape.

To see how racism and forced assimilation of indigenous people has persisted since colonization, we do not have to look further back than a century. In the early 20th century, the Canadian government extensively pursued policies of aggressive assimilation, and nothing epitomized this more than the creation of residential schools. The government’s doctrine was that indigenous culture was incompatible with mainstream Canadian culture, and that in order to succeed in Canadian society, indigenous children needed government assistance. These children were forcibly removed from their communities and sent to these schools, with the intention of eliminating traditional aboriginal values and replacing them with Western customs and Christianity. Since they were created, around 150,000 indigenous children have passed through these schools, and the last remaining residential school was abolished as late as 1996.

While removing a child from their family and culture was clearly a traumatic experience, it was far from the only source of trauma for these children. Stories by previous attendants of residential schools have revealed evidence of emotional, sexual, and physical abuse. In an article for The Globe and Mail, one victim recalls punishments as often having been meted out when children failed to leave their old customs behind. “I couldn’t speak English. My first language was Anishinaabe and I was only an Anishinaabe speaker at that point. And, because of that, I got severely punished”. Ex-students also recall various social issues that arose once they left the schools. Many found themselves marginalized by their communities, as their reformed cultural identities no longer matched up with those of their families. Moreover, the psychological trauma put many into a state of anxiety and pushed some into delinquency or substance abuse.

It is clear that the students who attended residential schools are still feeling the psychological effects of their experiences, and that this example of forced assimilation also has an effect on the communities themselves. In an attempt to highlight the controversies, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established in 2010, which aimed to recognize the previous actions of the Canadian government and to take steps toward a process of healing the damage that has been done. Throughout the years, the commission has allowed around 7000 previous attendants of residential schools to share their stories and experiences, with the intention to fully recognize the ongoing harm that had been caused by the residential school system. As the commission came to an end this summer with its final event in Ottawa, the conclusion was that it had been of importance and benefit to the indigenous community. However, the finalization of the commission has also resulted in dissatisfaction and confusion amongst its participants, and many have been left sceptical about what will happen next in terms of making amends. One participant of the TRC and survivor of the residential school system shared her thoughts with CBC: “This is just going to be one final hurrah for us and we’re just going to be placed aside. I think that’s the reality for us [survivors].”

The traumatic legacy of residential schools and the recent conclusion of the TRC have thrust the issue of indigenous reconciliation once more into the public sphere. Arguably, the archaic policy of forced assimilation still has a tangible effect on Canada’s indigenous communities. While apologies have been offered by various parties involved, the fact remains that Canada’s actions have been labelled by different organizations as cultural genocide. This accusation is arguably a legitimate one, as Canada’s actions appear to meet many of the characteristics of such a phenomenon. However, a cultural genocide has not been officially recognized by the Canadian state, and denial of this type of label is still prevalent. Furthermore, calls to improve social welfare and equal rights for indigenous citizens have been made by both the federal government (which have not been particularly successful) and indigenous communities. While this is an important step in rebuilding relations, proponents of the TRC argue that it is time to move from apologies and promises to actions, and to finally begin to generate mutual respect between the Canadian nation and Canadian indigenous communities. This is something that could perhaps be achieved by first recognizing the gravity of what has transpired.

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Assembly of First Nations chief Perry Bellegarde during talks last tuesday, 2015. Source: Renegade98, Flickr.

Canada is currently presented with a complex challenge of making amends with its colonial history and reconciling the abuse carried out against its indigenous citizens. For many decades, its political sphere has been characterized by continued insensitivity towards indigenous culture, as well as broken promises and failed policies to improve equality among all its citizens. With the recent change of government, we might speculate that a move away from conservative leadership would bring new alternatives to the insufficient resolution of indigenous relations. Some hope lies in the fact that the newly elected Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, has already taken steps to meet aboriginal leaders to discuss various issues. However, there is no denying the fact that the damage done to Canada’s indigenous peoples has had severe repercussions that live on till this day, and it should be recognized that the legacy of colonialism in Canada is not merely an issue of the past.

Michal Gieda

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