The (really good) hip hop trio A Tribe Called Red announced Friday that it won’t play a free concert to celebrate the opening of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg on Saturday night because the museum won’t acknowledge that aboriginals were the victims of genocide.
“Until this is rectified, we’ll support the museum from a distance,” said the band.
Aboriginal spiritual leaders blessed the opening of the beautiful new museum, but other aboriginals were outside, protesting, as politicians gave speeches taking credit for the $351 million project.
“We are successful if the museum can spark meaningful debate,” said museum CEO Stuart Murray.
It would be good if we could debate the specific question of whether aboriginals were the victims of genocide, but I wouldn’t expect Murray to say much.
The federal government, which appointed Murray, and which is footing most of the bill, recognizes five historical genocides — the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide in Turkey, the Holodomor in Ukraine, the Rwandan genocide and Srebrenica.
Likely because of concerns about legal liability, Ottawa does not want the human rights museum to acknowledge that what happened to aboriginals in this country was a genocide. It seems clear that it was, but so far the debate has consisted of aboriginals, historians and human rights activists making the case for genocide while Ottawa says nothing.
There likely exists some secret lawyerly counterargument turning on the United Nations definition of genocide, which is an act “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”
In Canada, our ancestors definitely committed acts that destroyed native peoples. Nobody can argue that. Consider the Beothuk of Newfoundland who were exterminated. Federal lawyers likely secretly argue that it was not the intent of the Crown to destroy the Beothuk, much as Turks argue that the murder of thousands of Armenians was an incidental and unfortunate result of a civil war.
Mostly, though, we don’t argue with aboriginals about genocide. We ignore them.
But the evidence gathered by historians is growing stronger and harder to refute.
It would be pretty tough to launch much of a counterargument if you have read Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation and the Loss of Aboriginal Life, a book published last year by University of Regina historian James Daschuk.
To build the Canadian Pacific railway in western Canada, it was necessary to move the aboriginals off the land that settlers needed. Since the bison herds on which the aboriginals had always relied had been hunted to the point of extinction, and other game and fish was depleted by settlers, the aboriginals were starving.
Ottawa offered food, but only if aboriginals settled on reserves. It was never enough food, and so they died in droves, often while food rotted in government warehouses.
Daschuk calls this a “state-sponsored attack on indigenous communities.”
In the House of Commons, Sir John A Macdonald, under pressure for spending too much money on food aid, promised that they would be “rigid, even stingy” with food, “until the Indians were on the verge of starvation, to reduce the expense.”
Daschuk is forced to conclude that “the uncomfortable truth is that modern Canada is founded upon ethnic cleansing and genocide.”
Once on reserves, aboriginals were subject to the Indian Act, which prevented them from voting, travelling off reserve without special apartheid-style passes, or organizing politically. Malnutrition and disease — especially tuberculosis — reduced formerly healthy populations to the point of collapse.
The government took aboriginal children away from their parents, sent them to residential schools, where they were abused, deprived of their language and culture, and died in large numbers of malnutrition and disease, the result of a deliberate policy of neglect that was only exposed by Peter Bryce, a crusading medical inspector at the turn of the last century.
Historian Ian Mosby revealed last year that in the 1940s and 1950s, federal researchers conducted nutritional experiments on malnourished aboriginal children rather than feeding them.
The scale of the crimes against aboriginals is overwhelming, something the federal government is trying to absorb, in its bureaucratic way, through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which will report next year.
But the ongoing suffering in aboriginal communities is a direct result of centuries of dislocation, starvation and powerlessness, of governments that veered between criminal neglect and willful ethnic cleansing. We haven’t begun to absorb it, in part because the government doesn’t like the implications of acknowledging the simple facts of the genocide.
We have built a human rights museum that will not acknowledge that fact. Soon, we will build monuments in Ottawa to the Holocaust and to victims of communism — terrible crimes committed far away.
On Monday, Oct. 14, we have the unique and historic opportunity to meet with Professor James Anaya, the Special United Nations Rapporteur for Indigenous People. It is our conviction that Canada’s history with First Nations people was not just dark and brutal, but in fact constituted a “genocide” as defined by the 1948 UN Convention on Genocide. Unresolved issues regarding genocide can have the effect of holding back real progress in economic development in any community.
Genocides rarely emerge fully formed from the womb of evil. They typically evolve in a stepwise fashion over time, as one crime leads to another and another.
The Holocaust is the undisputed genocide of all genocides, and it has been argued passionately by many historians that no other dark period in human history quite compares to it. Although qualitatively true in some aspects, modern historians no longer need to rely on shades of darkness in order to analyze genocide.
The United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPCG) was adopted on Dec. 9, 1948. It gives a very clear definition of what is and what is not a genocide. Stated another way, since 1948, social scientists have had the necessary tools to determine if genocide has occurred. It should also be pointed out that under the CPPCG, the intention to commit genocide is itself a crime, and not just the act of genocide.
It’s clear that Canada’s first prime minister Sir John A. MacDonald’s policy of starving First Nations to death in order to make way for the western expansion of European settlers meets the criteria of genocide under the CPPCG.
Similarly, the entire residential school system also passes the genocide test, in particular if you consider the fact that the Department of Indian Affairs, headed by Duncan Campbell Scott, deliberately ignored the recommendations of Peter Bryce, Canada’s first Chief Medical Officer, regarding the spread of tuberculosis in the schools. Such willful disregard for the basic principles of public health constitutes an act of genocide by omission, if not deliberate commission.
Finally, we have the very recent and painful memory of forced removal of First Nations children from their families by Indian Agents which occurred in the 1960s, also known by the popular term “Sixties Scoop.” This is an act of genocide that clearly meets the CPPCG test, and also fell outside of the residential school system.
Our conviction is that Canadian policy over more than 100 years can be defined as a genocide of First Nations under the 1948 UN Genocide Convention.
We hold that until Canada as represented by its government engages in a national conversation about our historical treatment of the First Nations; until we come to grips with the fact that we used racism, bigotry and discrimination as a tool to not only assimilate First Nations into the Canadian polity, but engaged in a deliberate policy of genocide both cultural and physical; we will never heal.
The fact that Canada’s Aboriginal peoples have not been wiped out, and are indeed growing in numbers, is not proof that genocide never occurred, as some would have us believe. The historical and psychological reality of genocide among our Aboriginal communities is very much alive and a part of living memory. The sooner we recognize this truth, the sooner both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians will be able to heal from our shared traumas.
This is adapted from a letter to the United Nations Rapporteur for Indigenous People delivered by Phil Fontaine, a former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, and Bernie Farber, senior vice-president of Gemini Power Corporation and former head of the Canadian Jewish Congress. It is also signed by Elder Fred Kelly, a spiritual elder and member of the AFN Council of Elders, and Dr. Michael Dan, president of gemini Power Corporation.