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opinion

Lysiane Gagnon

I'm among those who trust and respect the Supreme Court – and precisely because I believe in what the court stands for, I was flabbergasted to see how Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin overstepped her role by declaring in a recent speech that Canada is guilty of "cultural genocide" against aboriginal people.

This is unacceptable on many counts.

Judges, especially those on the highest court, should be bound by the strictest duty of reserve. They must avoid dabbling in politics and controversies, if only to assure the public that they will be thoroughly objective when confronted with a difficult legal case. Of course all judges come to the bench with their own opinions, but like Caesar's wife, they should appear above suspicion of entertaining preconceived views.

Yes, their liberty of speech is limited, precisely because their power over governments and individuals is so great. Judges speak through their rulings and these rulings have long-lasting effects on the society. By bluntly stating that Canada's treatment of aboriginals was a "cultural genocide" – a highly inflammatory statement – the Chief Justice opened herself to accusations of prejudice when her court is faced with another cause regarding aboriginal rights. Far from helping aboriginal groups, this declaration will be a disservice to them as long as Chief Justice McLachlin presides over the court.

Even with the qualifier "cultural," genocide is a loaded word. It was defined by the Holocaust, an operation that is unparalleled in human history, and there's been some sort of consensus, lately, that the word could also apply to the cases of the Armenians and the Tutsis. But as badly treated as they've been in past, it's a stretch to affirm that Canadian aboriginals were the victims of genocidal policies.

By any account, the colonization was actually less brutal and cruel in Canada than in the United States and Latin America, or many other parts of the world. In New France, the colonizing process was different than in the West because it took place much earlier: The French settlers quickly made friends within the aboriginal population in part because they needed them to survive in an unknown continent, in part because they wanted to convert them (in that era, saving souls from an eternity in hell was a Christian's duty). Throughout the years, there have been countless mixed marriages in Quebec. Is this a sign of cultural genocide?

What about the children in France's Brittany, who were punished for speaking their language at school (the teachers would hang a clog around the neck)? All of France's regional languages have been eradicated by the central government, yet not even the most politically correct French moralist would dare say that France committed a cultural genocide.

If all the massacres, all the wars of conquest and all the state-sponsored repressions that happened throughout human history were to be qualified as "genocidal," then everything and anything is a genocide, and the word doesn't mean anything.

Serious historians take pains to avoid "presentism," an intellectual bias by which past events are analyzed outside their historical context, in the light of today's values. Presentism is saying, for example, that Plato was "sexist" because his Republic didn't include gender parity. The system of residential schools was terribly wrong, we know now, but at the time it was commonly seen as beneficial because it would allow Indian children to be educated and converted.

In any case, there's an election looming and if Chief Justice McLachlin feels like getting involved in politics, now is the time to run for office.

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