G is for Genocide

On July 1, 2017, Canada will mark 150 years as a country. As a teacher, I have a number of cute crafts to choose from. A hand-print Canadian flag shirt? Inukshuk party treats or a Canada flag cake made out of strawberries? How about a Canada-themed bunting? How do I best celebrate 150 years of Canada with my students?

Amidst all the festivities though, it has not escaped my attention that not everyone is planning a party. The celebratory nature of Canada Day, especially this Canada Day seems to be controversial. Many in my Twitter feed see 150 years of Canada, as 150 years of colonial oppression. Celebrating 150 years of Canada is being equated with celebrating 150 years of Indigenous genocide (Palmater, 2017).

As I think about how to engage my students with Canada 150 I wonder if it is true. Is Canada built on genocide?

The General Assembly of the United Nations (1948) defines genocide as:

…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.
— Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, Article 2

Warrior Publications

After weeks of reading it turns out, it is actually pretty easy to argue that Canada has indeed committed genocide against Indigenous peoples. In fact, we meet all five of the UN’s possible criteria.

Dobyns (1966) estimated that prior to “discovery” the “New World” was inhabited by 90 million persons (p.416). There is criticism that this number is too high. Nonetheless, that is one estimate. What is more clear is the devastating effects of European contact on Indigenous populations. In 1541, Spanish historian Bartolomé de Las Casas undertook to estimate the rate of Indigenous mortality within the first 40 years under Spanish control in the Americas. He calculated that “more than twelve million persons, men, and women, and children, have perished unjustly and through tyranny, by the infernal deeds and tyranny of the Christians” (as cited in Dobyns, p.396).

While scholars disagree on the exact number of Indigenous inhabitants of North and South America, they do agree on the “severity of population decline and the suffering unleashed on the indigenous people of America” (Daschuk, p.1) due to contact with Europeans.

An overall decline of the Indigenous population by 95 percent has become “a working rule of thumb…The destruction of the Indians of the Americas was, far and away, the most massive act of genocide in the history of the world” (Stannard, 1992, p.X).

I remember sitting in a Canadian history course at Simon Fraser University and listening to the professor’s lecture detailing the peaceful settling of Canada. I was comforted by the idea that although every country south of us had a violent history of genocidal acts towards Indigenous peoples, Canada was a shining exception. Almost two decades later, as I think about one hundred and fifty years of Canada, it has become clear to me what a seductive lie that was. While it is true that we directed few military campaigns against Indigenous people, it is not true that this made us peaceful.

Genocide still happened/happens here.

In October 1749, Edward Cornwallis, governor of Nova Scotia, issued an order that became known as the Scalping Proclamation. His government paid a bounty to anyone who killed a Mi’kmaq adult or child in an attempt to eliminate the Mi’kmaq from Nova Scotia. Mi’kmaq historian Daniel Paul in his book, We Were Not The Savages (2000), details the results of this proclamation. “Father Maillard, a Catholic missionary, reports that among the first victims…were three pregnant women and two small children” (p.103). Paul argues that the efforts by the Canadian government to eradicate the Mi’kmaq from Nova Scotia constitute an act of genocide. Furthermore, this scalping law has never been rescinded and continues to be on the books (Two hundred year-old scalp law still on books in Nova Scotia, 2000).

In 1769, General Jeffrey Amherst, the Commander-in Chief of British forces in North America, directed the spread of smallpox among Indigenous peoples using infected blankets. He wrote to Col. Bouquet: “Could it not be contrived to Send the Small Pox among those Disaffected Tribes of Indians? We must, on this occasion, Use Every Stratagem in our power to Reduce them” (as quoted in Fenn, 2000, p. 1555).

Indeed, the successful spread of diseases such as smallpox and the destruction of traditional food sources such as the bison, negated the need to fight military campaigns to secure land and resources for European expansion in what is now Canada. Furthermore, this loss of food and concurrent spread of illness were not natural occurrences free from human control. Eighteenth-century Europeans well understood how smallpox was spread and conversely how it could be contained (Fenn, 2000).

Europeans also understood the critical importance of the bison as a food source. In 1867, one member of the US Army gave the order to his troops to “kill every buffalo you can. Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone” (as cited in Merchant, 2007, p.20). The link between the health of the bison herds and the health of Indigenous peoples was widely recognized. Historian James Daschuk who has extensively researched disease and starvation on the Canadian prairies has argued that modern Canada is founded upon “ethnic cleansing and genocide” (2013b, par. 9).

Most Canadians, however, balk at the idea that Canada could have committed genocide. In part this is because we have come to associate genocide with images of Jewish people arriving at Auschwitz in cattle cars on their way to gas chambers. But every genocide looks different. In the Rwandan genocide most of the victims were killed in their own villages by their neighbors armed with machetes. Of note, the UN definition of genocide does not specify a quantity or percentage of a population that must be killed before the massacre is considered a genocide. In fact, genocide does not require mass murder. Rather, the UN’s definition focuses on intent, the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a racial group. And killing is but one of the five recognized genocidal acts. Indeed, forcibly transferring children of the group to another group, is considered equally genocidal.

Kent Monkman’s The Scream

In 1884, the Canadian government made it mandatory for Indigenous children to attend residential schools.

This school system was created for the purpose of removing children from the influence of their own culture and assimilating them into the dominant Canadian culture.

Deputy Minister of Indian Affairs Duncan Campbell Scott outlined the goals of the government’s assimilation policy in 1920: “our object is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic” (as cited in TRC, 2015, p.3).

The residential schools were intentionally located at substantial distances from Indigenous communities which minimized contact between families and their children.

Schools were minimally funded by the federal government and run by churches. Conditions at the schools were extremely poor and many students died while at school or shortly after being sent home. In 1913, Scott wrote: “It is quite within the mark to say that fifty per cent of the children who passed through these schools did not live to benefit from the education, which they had received therein” (as cited in Schwartz, 2015).

Adam Jones (2006) has argued that death rates at North American residential schools matched or exceeded the death rates in Nazi concentration camps during the Second World War (p. 76). David Wallace Adams (1995) has called the residential school system “education for extinction”.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (2016) has argued that in its dealings with Aboriginal peoples, Canada has committed physical genocide (mass killings), biological genocide (destruction of reproductive capacity) and cultural genocide (destruction of political and social institutions) (p.3).

The Canadian government began phasing out compulsory residential school education in the 1950s and 1960s as Canadians began to understand its devastating impacts on families. As the residential school system began to wane, but before the last school closed in 1996, Canada created another assimilation policy, what has come to be known as the Sixties Scoop. The scoop began in the mid-1960s when Ottawa awarded authority for child welfare on reserves to provincial child-welfare agencies. During this period, it is estimated that 20,000 Indigenous children were taken away from their families and home communities and placed with predominantly White families.

In 1985, Justice Edwin Kimelman released a highly critical review of Aboriginal child apprehension where he concluded that “cultural genocide has taken place in a systematic, routine manner” (as cited in Hanson, UBC). While the policies of the Sixties Scoop have now been eliminated, Indigenous children are still placed in care outside of their homes at alarming rates. Currently, the number of First Nations children who have been removed from their families today is three times higher than the number of children in residential schools at the height of their operation (Blackstock, 2013, p.163). We continue to forcibly remove Indigenous children from their families and communities.

Sioux Lookout Hospital, where 61 First Nations women were sterilized between 1971-74. (Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat)

Besides the removal of children, imposing measures intended to prevent births is also considered genocidal. Eugenics ideologies were prominent in Canada throughout much of the twentieth century. In the spirit of controlling and decreasing the births of Indigenous peoples, eugenics policies advocated for measures such as marriage regulation, segregation and sterilization (Stote, 2002). The reserve and pass systems segregated Indigenous populations. Marriage regulations in the Indian Act removed Indian status from First Nations women who married non-First Nations men. In June 2017, the House of Commons rejected proposed changes to the Indian Act which would have removed all gender-based discrimination (Cossette, 2017). Currently, Indigenous Canadians are unable to pass on Indian status to their children if they received their own status through a grandmother who lost her status when she married a non-Indian. These regulations continue to interfere with Indigenous peoples’ ability to have children. Recently two Indigenous women took to Craigslist in search of a full status sperm donor so that they would be able to pass on full status to their children (Monkman, 2017).

Sterilization is also a genocidal strategy. Karen Stote (2012) details the forced sterilization of Indigenous women in her PhD dissertation, An Act of Genocide: Eugenics, Indian Policy, and the Sterilization of Aboriginal Women in Canada. In Canada, sterilizations were carried out in several provinces but only Alberta and British Columbia enacted formal legislation. From 1928 to 1973, provincially mandated Eugenics Boards sterilized over three thousand people, including a disproportionate number of Indigenous women (Stote, p.2). While the Eugenics Boards have now been dismantled, the spirit and intent of these boards continue. For example, a number of Indigenous women have revealed that they were sterilized against their will at the Royal University Hospital in Saskatoon, SK as recently as 2010 (“I didn’t want it done”, 2015).

In my mind, though, what clinches the argument for genocide is section C: “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part”. You only need to look at the state of reserves in Canada to see that this is true.

On every measure, the conditions of life on reserve are calculated to be devastating. In terms of water, there continue to be well over 100 Indigenous communities without clean drinking water (Government of Canada, 2017). In terms of income, 60% of children living on reserves live in poverty (Kirkup, 2016). In terms of housing, 41.5% of homes on reserves are in need of major repairs and on reserves rates of overcrowding are six times greater than off reserve (Stastna, 2011). And all of these conditions are dictated by government funding.

The Assembly of First Nations reports that the current funding provided to First Nations is highly discriminatory. In 2010, First Nations citizens received less than half the funding of the average Canadian citizen ($8,750 per capita compared to $18,724 per capita) to support local programs and services (AFN, 2011, p.2). The situation on reserves is so dire that suicide is rampant, including the suicide of children. Studies suggest that suicide and self-inflicted injuries are among the leading causes of death among First Nations, Métis and Inuit people (Annett & Galloway, 2017). According to Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde, the Indigenous youth suicide rate is five times the national average (Stop the tragic suicides on reserves, 2017).

Just recently, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal has taken the extraordinary step of identifying the federal government’s failure to fully implement equitable funding (or the Jordan’s Principle) as being a contributing factor to the suicides of two teenagers in Wapekeka First Nation in January of 2017 (Rabson, 2017).

In summary, any of the five acts defined by the UN would constitute genocide and Canada has done all five. Furthermore, Canada has not only committed genocide in the past, we continue to commit genocidal acts against Indigenous peoples in the present. From starlight tours and scalping laws to sterilizations, from child apprehensions to systematic under-funding of reserves, we don’t seem to be done with genocide. And perhaps, it is this on-going nature of our genocide, the closeness of it, that makes it so hard for us to see. We are still in it. Our genocide is not done.

In a portion of Michael Moore’s (2015) documentary Where to Invade Next he highlights genocide education in Germany. Moore reports about the way that the German education system thoroughly and unflinchingly teaches their students about the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany in the Second World War. This education teaches German children that “to be German isn’t just about Beethoven and Bach but also about genocide and evil.”

Moore argues that Germans treat genocide as their “original sin. A permanent mark on their collective German soul. One for which they must always seek redemption and make reparation. And never forget.”

For Moore, the first step to “recovery, the first step to being a better person, or a better country is to be able to just stand up and honestly say who and what you are.”

Perhaps on this 150th birthday of Canada, we should start by standing and saying who we are.

I am Canadian. I live in Canada, a country founded on the unfinished and on-going genocide of Indigenous peoples.

And as such, I cannot in good conscience blithely plan a party for Canada Day in my classroom. I cannot contribute to our national, festive oblivion. Herman (1997) writes that in order to escape “accountability for his crimes, the perpetrator, does everything in his power to promote forgetting” (as cited in Cote-Meek, 2014, p.25). What is Canada Day, if not an exercise in forgetting?

Until I can figure out how to celebrate Canada ethically, the cute crafts are going to have to wait.


Adams, D. W. (1995). Education for extinction: American Indians and the boarding school experience, 1875-1928. Lawrence, Kan: University Press of Kansas.

Annette, E. & Galloway, G. (2017, January 5). Attawapiskat: Four things to help understand the suicide crisis. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/attawapiskat-four-things-to-help-understand-the-suicidecrisis/article29583059/

Assembly of First Nations. (2011). Structural Transformation & Critical Investments in First Nations on the Path to Shared Prosperity. Retrieved from:  http://www.afn.ca/uploads/files/2011-pre-budget-submission.pdf

Blackstock, C. (2012) Reconciliation Means Not Saying Sorry Twice: Lessons from Child Welfare in Canada in Aboriginal Healing Foundation. In S. Rogers, M. DeGagné, & J. Dewar (Eds.). Speaking my truth: Reflections on reconciliation & residential school (pp.161-175). Ottawa, ON: Aboriginal Healing Foundation. Retrieved from: http://speakingmytruth.ca/downloads/AHFvol1/11_Blackstock.pdf

Cossette, M. (2017, June 15). MPs reject Senate’s changes to bill targeting sexism in the Indian Act. CBCnews: Politics. Retrieved from: http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/senate-amendment-indian-act-rejected-1.4160579

Cote-Meek, S. (2014). Colonized Classrooms: Racism, Trauma and Resistance in Post-Secondary Education. Winnipeg, MB: Fernwood Publishing.

Daschuk, J. (2013a). Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life. Regina: University of Regina Press.

Daschuk, J. (2013b, July 19). When Canada used hunger to clear the West. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/when-canada-used-hunger-to-clear-the-west/article13316877/

Dobyns, H. (1966). An Appraisal of Techniques with a New Hemispheric Estimate. Current Anthropology. 7(4), pp. 395-416.

Eshet, D. (2007). Totally Unofficial: Raphael Lemkin and the Genocide Convention. Facing History and Ourselves Foundation Inc. Retrieved from: https://www.facinghistory.org/sites/default/files/publications/raphael_lemkin_0.pdf

Fenn, E. (2000). Biological Warfare in Eighteenth-Century North America: Beyond Jeffery Amherst. The Journal of American History86(4), pp.1552-1580.

Government of Canada. (2017). Drinking water advisories: First Nations south of 60. Retrieved from: https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/topics/health-environment/water-quality-health/drinking-water/advisories-first-nations-south-60.html

Hanson, E. Sixties Scoop. Indigenous Foundations. Retrieved from: http://indigenousfoundations.adm.arts.ubc.ca/sixties_scoop/

‘I didn’t want it done’: Saskatoon woman was sterilized against her will. (2015, November 18).  CBCnews: Saskatoon. Retrieved from: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatoon/saskatoon-woman-sterilized-against-will-1.3324980

Jones, A. (2006). Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction. New York: Routledge. Retrieved from: https://www.mcvts.net/cms/lib07/NJ01911694/Centricity/Domain/155/Textbook.pdf

Kirkup, K. (2016, May 17). 60% of First Nation children on reserve live in poverty, institute says. CBCnews: Indigenous. Retrieved from: http://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/institute-says-60-percent-fn-children-on-reserve-live-in-poverty-1.3585105

Merchant, C. (2007) American Environmental History: An Introduction. New York: Columbia University Press.

Monkman, L. (2017, February 28). Native ‘sister’s post Craigslist ad looking for ‘full status sperm donor’. CBC News. Retrieved from: http://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/craigslist-full-status-sperm-donor-1.3997963.

Moore, M. (2016). Where to Invade Next. [United States]: Anchor Bay Entertainment. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QHnhuUxZhNI

Palmater, P. (2017, March 29). Canada 150 is a celebration of Indigenous genocide. NOW. Retrieved from: https://nowtoronto.com/news/canada-s-150th-a-celebration-of-indigenous-genocide/

Paul, D. N. (2006). We were not the savages: Collision between European and native American civilizations. Halifax, Nova Scotia: Fernwood Publishing.

Rabson, M. (2017, May 26). Jordan’s Principle could have prevented Ontario suicides, rights tribunal says. CBCnews: Manitoba. Retrieved from: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/jordans-principle-could-have-prevented-wapekeka-first-nation-suicides-1.4134018

Schwartz, D. (2015, June 2). Truth and Reconciliation Commission: By the numbers. CBC news: Indigenous. Retrieved from: http://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/truth-and-reconciliation-commission-by-the-numbers-1.3096185

Stannard, D. (1992). American holocaust: Columbus and the conquest of the New World. New York: Oxford University Press.

Stastna, K. (2014, April 12). Shacks and slop pails: infrastructure crisis on native reserves. CBCnews: Canada. Retrieved from: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/shacks-and-slop-pails-infrastructure-crisis-on-native-reserves-1.1004957

Stop the tragic suicides on reserves: Editorial. (2017, January 16). Toronto Starhttps://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorials/2017/01/16/stop-the-tragic-suicides-on-reserves-editorial.html

Stote, K. (2012). An Act of Genocide: Eugenics, Indian Policy, and the Sterilization of Aboriginal Women in Canada (PhD Dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations.

Truth and Reconciliation Canada. (2015). Honouring the truth, reconciling for the future: Summary of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Winnipeg: Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada,, Fontaine, P., & Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2016). A knock on the door: The essential history of residential schools. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press.

Two hundred year-old scalp law still on books in Nova Scotia. (2000, January 4). CBC News. Retrieved from: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/two-hundred-year-old-scalp-law-still-on-books-in-nova-scotia-1.230906

UN General Assembly, Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, 9 December 1948, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 78. Retrieved from: https://treaties.un.org/doc/Publication/UNTS/Volume%2078/v78.pdf


2 Responses

  1. Lisa Noble

    Thanks, Claire. I’m in tears. This year, I had the gift of designing/co-teaching an #fnmi issues class to my Grade 7/8’s, with our amazing Ojibwe language teacher. She is a former residential school student, who was willing to share her experiences with our class. She changed our world this year. We did a lot of looking at why a happy clappy approach to Canada 150 can’t move us forward. One of our most powerful moments happened when we took part in the social media campaign #weremember for Holocaust remembrance. One of my students chose to include residential schools among the genocides he referred to in his poster. We have to name it.

    1. Claire Kreuger

      Hi Lisa. Thanks for the comment! I love your term “happy clappy approach to Canada”. That’s exactly right! Yesterday I spent the afternoon at the park doing a blanket exercise while a stage close-by did the usual Canada Day celebrating. It was quite the juxtaposition! We need to get to a place where we can discuss Canada sensibly. It can’t be only clapping. That’s awesome that your student gets the genocide piece. So often kids get things so much quicker than adults. They don’t have years of “education” getting in the way. 🙂

Leave a Reply