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First Nations children hold letters spelling out ‘goodbye’ at Fort Simpson Indian Residential School in 1922. (J.F. MORAN/LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA)
First Nations children hold letters spelling out ‘goodbye’ at Fort Simpson Indian Residential School in 1922. (J.F. MORAN/LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA)

Fontaine and Farber

What Canada committed against First Nations was genocide. The UN should recognize it Add to ...

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.

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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.

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