When Canadians examine the world in which they live, it’s easy to see state sanctioned violence, human rights abuses, and injustice in other countries. From the wars and instability ravaging the Middle East, the poverty and dictatorships across Africa, and the authoritarian leaders elsewhere, it’s easy to believe that Canada is a bastion of harmony and prosperity. While it is true that Canada, from a global perspective, is relatively liberal, prosperous, and democratic, one should always be more critical of situations close to home, which one exerts greater influence over, rather than the crimes of official enemies. As George Orwell wrote, “to see what is directly in front of one’s nose requires a constant effort,” and it seems most Canadians have refused to make that effort regarding the suffering and persecution of Indigenous women, girls, and queer people. The other possibility is that Canadians are simply indifferent to the treatment of Indigenous people. Perhaps the truth is somewhere in the middle. But the reality is simple. Canada is a settler-colonial society. It is founded on the genocide and occupation of the Indigenous people and their land. The recent report released by the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) clearly illustrates that the principle, “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” is thriving in twenty-first century Canada.
The anger over the use of the term genocide to refer to the brutalization of the Indigenous people of Canada demonstrates the continued dehumanisation of Indigenous people by the state, including by Senator Linda Frum and journalist Jon Kay. The use of the term genocide to refer to the Canadian treatment of Indigenous people does not in any way diminish the horrors of the Holocaust or other historical genocides. In fact, arguing this point disguises the reality that the Holocaust was partly inspired by the treatment of Indigenous people in Canada. If the decimation of the Indigenous population due to centuries of colonial state policy does not constitute genocide, then what is genocide? Between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Indigenous population of Canada was decimated through disease and warfare. The population in recent years has begun to rise again at a fast rate. However this does not discount the charge of genocide, it merely reflects the fact that people in impoverished situations have higher birth rates. The European colonization of the Americas was the worst genocide in human history and it has been transformed many times but the colonial project of eliminating the “inconvenient Indian” from history has not disappeared.
Anyone familiar with the official definition of genocide is also aware that the term entails more than simply killing members of a group, which the state of Canada has certainly done to Indigenous people. It also discusses other acts such as attempts to prevents births in population, causing serious harm to mental health, or forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. Canada’s treatment of the Indigenous population perfectly fits these definitions. From the forced sterilization of Indigenous women, to the kidnapping of Indigenous children and forcing them to attending Residential schools, where physical and sexual abuse was rampant, Canada has systematically attempted to destroy the Indigenous population and their culture.
The dehumanisation of Indigenous people in Canada is a central part Canadian education. Students in Canada are taught to view the Indigenous peoples as primitive and uncivilized compared to the European imperialists. They teach that the European settlers may have done some bad things but there is plenty of blame on all sides and the Europeans brought science and enlightenment to a “savage” people. This is a complete falsification of history. In a settler-colonial context, there is a singular aggressor- that is the state. Furthermore, the Indigenous people of Canada were more advanced than their European counterparts by many social metrics, including life expectancy. Despite what they may teach in schools, many Indigenous nations did have a written language. Schools teach that a lack of a written language is why many Indigenous traditions were lost, rather than the systematic destruction of Indigenous cultures and languages by the Canadian state in the Residential school system among other assimilationist methods.
All Canadians, especially educators and students, must speak out against the continued dehumanisation of the Indigenous people. It is easy to look abroad and see violence and injustice but it is far more difficult and significant to see atrocities close to home. As Martin Luther King Jr. said in what he considered his most important speech, Beyond Vietnam, that the US government is “taking black young men” to fight in Vietnam to supposedly “guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.” Former Conservative Minister of Defence Peter Mackay can say what he likes about women’s rights in Afghanistan (which will of course be realized through bombs) but there needs to a reckoning about the treatment of Indigenous women in Canada. Beyond shallow performative acts such as land recognition statements, there needs to be serious changes in the way Canadians acknowledge the horrors inflicted onto the Indigenous people of this nation by the state. Until there is enough public outcry about these atrocities, the colonial project will persist.