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doug saunders

The first thing worth knowing, in understanding the specific nature of the crime Canada stands accused of, is how recent it all really was.

Keep in mind that, until 1960, no First Nations were permitted to vote in a Canadian election. In other words, they had a legal status not of citizens but much more like that of wildlife. They could not, for much of the 20th century, leave the confines of a reserve without permission from a government agent. Indigenous Canadians often could not run businesses, borrow money, own property, or, in the case of Inuit from the 1940s to the 1970s, even have a name.

And at the centre of all this, the practice of seizing aboriginal children permanently and usually unwillingly from their parents, placing them in state custody, and subjecting them to the forced labour and isolation of residential "schools" – the subject of this week's monumental Truth and Reconciliation Commission report – reached its peak at the very end of the 1950s and continued in significant numbers through the 1970s (the last residential school didn't close until 1996). Almost a third of aboriginal Canadians – 150,000 people – were raised, without access to their families, in these institutions (which were by any normal definition not educational but penal).

In other words, this is not about acts of vanished generations: A very significant proportion of still-living indigenous Canadians were personal victims of these abuses; the effects of such deprivation will last many generations, and may have only begun.

This is about modern Canada. And it is about a crime that carries the word "genocide."

Many people will find both new and hard to accept the notion that Canada, and current Canadians, are accused of a crime as serious as genocide under international law. The phrase "cultural genocide" has escalated almost overnight from an activist slogan and academic obscurity into official Canadian language, after the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada used it last week to describe the indigenous experience, and then the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, created and authorized by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, used it as its central organizing concept in characterizing the experience of the last century.

It is a real crime with a real, internationally accepted definition. We could try to fight the charge in court, if it came down to some formal hearing, but it would be a tough one to beat. The law in question – the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which Canada ratified and has been an enthusiastic supporter of – does not have a separate category called "cultural genocide."

Rather, it defines genocide itself as the "intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical or religious group" by, among other things, "imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group" (Canada's indigenous population declined to record lows during the century of residential schools) and "forcibly transferring children of the group to another group."

The question of intent would be the sticking point, but the commission's report provides voluminous and very quotable evidence that everyone from John A. Macdonald to the 1950s managers of the residential school system explicitly intended that program, and the wider Indian Act, to strip indigenous people of any racial, linguistic, cultural or family identity – to, in the words of our first prime minister, withdraw them from parental influence so that they would "acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men."

It was not just cultural. The residential school archipelago, when it was created in the 1870s and 1880s, was modelled not after European boarding schools but after the British reformatories and industrial schools designed in the early 19th century to support a child-labour regime – and which were gradually abolished in Britain after 1848. This Canadian system was meant to receive no government or private financing whatsoever: It was to be funded entirely (and in practice was funded "on a nearly cost-free basis," according to the report) from the products of the unpaid labour of its "students." The resulting revenues proved grossly inadequate to the nutritional, physical and health needs of the children, and as a result, more than 4,000 of them died.

If, in any other part of the world, we learned that tens of thousands of children had been forced into involuntary labour strictly because of their racial identity, and that thousands of them had died as a result, we would probably use a phrase stronger than "cultural genocide."

It seems absurd, to many Canadians, to be shamed with a label coined to describe the mechanical near-destruction of Europe's Jews. Canadians did not force entire families into ovens and gas chambers by the millions, as in the Nazi Holocaust; we did not walk into villages and hack hundreds of thousands of people to death, as in the Rwandan genocide.

Canada's case falls into a category occupied by two other crimes against humanity that Mr. Harper's government has recognized as genocides. There is at least a functional similarity (albeit at a slower and less lethal scale) to the acts committed by the Ottomans against Armenians on Turkish territory in 1915: Those acts involved the mass, violent uprooting, force-marched relocation and forced-labour institutionalization of an entire people, with considerable disregard for life (as well as some considerable acts of outright murder).

One cannot help noting a similar pattern and motive, on a less explosively militaristic scale, in historian James Daschuk's chronicle of the broader events of Canada in the 1880s in his book Clearing the Plains: "Years of hunger and despair that coincided with extermination of the bison and relocation of groups to reserves, exacerbated by inadequate food aid from the dominion government, created ecological conditions in which the disease [tuberculosis] exploded [and] kept plains people in a constant state of hunger," killing countless thousands and wiping out entire communities – a forced relocation mixed with deliberate starvation and disease, with involuntary work camps added to the mix.

Much more comparable to Canada's story in mood and motive, albeit also on a different scale, is another event, formally recognized as a genocide by Mr. Harper in 2008: what Ukrainians call the Holodomor, in which the Soviets force-collectivized countless families onto land they did not own to grow crops they could not sell or eat, stripped people of their language and culture, removed children from their families and put them in heartless boarding schools, and created conditions that led to mass starvation and disease.

There were no death camps here, and the official intent was ostensibly beneficial – the belief that the "primitive" peasants of the steppe could be improved and modernized through concentration, assimilation and removal from their culture. It is not hard to see a comparison, though with a lower death toll, between this and the forced collectivization of the reserve system and the penal-style "improvements" of the residential schools.

In other words, Canada's crime fits into the historical pattern of a certain sort of genocidal act, one that has been recognized and condemned by Ottawa when it has taken place in other countries. By acknowledging the validity of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's label, Ottawa would gain credibility in applying it to other countries.

But there are some other things that should also be recognized about the Canadian crime, beyond its modernity and its international familiarity, which may help us find a way beyond its aftermath and consequences.

The acts we now call "cultural genocide" were not inevitable, or timeless, or permanent. They had a beginning, an end and a limited duration.

For the two centuries before the 1870s, there were certainly moments of cruelty and racism, but the general understanding was that indigenous nations and Europeans were two parallel and equal societies that allowed each other to co-exist. It was during this period that the most important treaties were signed that today define the indigenous peoples' relationship with the Canadian state.

The system of institutionalized cultural control and domination described in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's report arose in the 1870s when the new bureaucratic order of postcolonial Canada began to apply structure and order to newly added territories – many of which it wished to parcel up and hand to newcomers, cleansed of pre-existing people – and also applying discipline and institutional homogeneity to what it saw as lost and unhygienic populations. The result was the simultaneous emergence of the reserve system and the residential-school archipelago.

The system of total control over indigenous lives began to wane after the 1970s – at which point Canada's courts began to recognize treaties with aboriginal nations as part of the constitutional and legal fabric of Canada, and the term "First Nations" was coined by these treaty people to describe their status.

The period of what we now call cultural genocide lasted just a century, though its consequences could continue much longer if we do not intervene to reverse the toll of this period.

In many ways, the artifacts of this system continue to function. We still have the forced collectivization of reserves, and large-scale non-ownership of aboriginal land. We are still perhaps the only country in the world with federal government offices whose function it is – under the "status Indian" policy – to determine racial purity. We still have terrible schools, staffed with ill-equipped teachers and given pathetic levels of funding, on reserves.

Compared with other "cultural genocide" events, the number of people affected is small: Aboriginal peoples are 4.3 per cent of the Canadian population: 1.5 million people, only half of whom live on reserves. To strike a new settlement with these populations as recommended in the commission's report (we have already done so, to a large extent, with the Inuit) would not, then, be an overwhelming challenge.

This newly named crime may be a source of national shame, but it does not have to define Canada: Another century of progress and co-operative relations could transform it from a current event into a piece of history. We have a chance, in the aftermath of this report, to begin a less shameful era of Canadian and indigenous history.

Doug Saunders is The Globe and Mail's international affairs columnist.

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