On Saturday, July 30, aboard the Papal plane on his way home from Canada following his five-day “penitential pilgrimage,” Pope Francis admitted that his Church’s involvement with the Indian Residential Schools (IRS) was “genocide,” the most horrific crime one group can commit against another.
His acknowledgement of the church’s guilt was in response to an on-board indigenous Canadian reporter’s question of why he did not use the word “genocide” during the trip, and if he would now accept that members of his Church participated in genocide, to which the Pope replied:
“It’s true that I did not use the word because I didn’t think of it. But I described genocide. I apologised, I asked forgiveness for this activity, which was genocide…. I condemned this, taking children away and, their minds, change their traditions, a race, an entire culture.”
Earlier in the week in his official apology, the Pope also said:
“… policies of assimilation ended up systematically marginalizing the Indigenous peoples … [whose] cultures were denigrated and suppressed [and] children suffered … spiritual abuse” which he called “this deplorable evil.”
These words suggest that the Pope was referring to his Church’s role in the IRS as “cultural genocide” rather than physical genocide, the legally established meaning of the term.
On June 2, 2015, the day the Summary Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was released, Liberal Party of Canada leader Justin Trudeau hailed it as “the truth of what happened [in the Indian Residential School system],” thereby accepting its central assertion that what occurred there was “cultural genocide.”
He was not alone in this belief. Distinguished Canadians such as Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin and former prime minister Paul Martin have publicly endorsed this charge as well. Even former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, although he refrained from using the term in his 2008 Parliamentary statement of apology to former IRS students, acknowledged the IRS tried to “kill the Indian in the child.” If true, surely that was cultural genocide.
Cultural genocide is an indisputable historical fact according to the TRC. Hence its recommendations calling for legal, political, and economic restitution for aboriginal cultural genocide, all based on the assumption – asserted on the first page of the report – that the schools systematically engaged in:
“… the destruction of those structures and practices that allow the group to continue as a group … to prevent the transmission of cultural values and identity from one generation to the next.”
The origin of the cultural genocide allegation is the 1996 Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, that led to the establishment of the TRC, and it has been repeated many times since, though rarely with as much authority as in the Pope’s recent confession.
But that doesn’t necessarily make it true.
Only in the post-colonial era has the most benign form of conflict-based interaction between alien people – what social scientists have long called enculturation or assimilation – been reinvented as “cultural genocide”. The term was coined in 1944 by Raphael Lemkin, who lost dozens of relatives in the Holocaust and later helped the United Nations formulate its legal definitions of actual genocide – the physical extermination of a people.
With endorsements by numerous prominent Canadians and the TRC Report, it has achieved widespread currency in Canada: a July 2015 Angus Reid poll found that 70% of Canadians agreed that cultural genocide described the IRS experience, although most respondents admitted they knew little about the Report or the issue.
To challenge the validity of the nomenclature is not to deny the harsh physical and heinous sexual abuse that sometimes occurred at these often poorly run, maintained, and underfunded schools. These facts are undeniably true, but they do not add up to cultural genocide, partly because the term itself has no legal definition.
The label was deliberately excluded from the five grounds listed in the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which says nothing about the loss of culture – the languages, beliefs, values, and ideas that distinguish groups of people from each other; rather, it talks only about the intentional destruction of a “national, ethnical, racial, or religious group” of people using various physical means. Thus, it was inaccurate for the TRC to assert that the generally voluntary attendance at residential schools is covered by the Convention.
The Convention does recognize in Article 2(e) that genocide can involve “forcibly transferring children from one group to another group”. This might apply, for example, when Boko Haram jihadists in Nigeria kidnap hundreds of Christian schoolgirls, force them to accept Islam, and marry them off to their fighters. But this is manifestly not in the same league as Canadian aboriginal children temporarily and mainly voluntarily attending boarding schools, usually for a few years, to obtain a Western education.
The cultural genocide charge is further undermined by the fact that the provision of a Western education was often requested by aboriginals and entrenched in six of the seven numbered treaties negotiated in Western Canada. Treaty Six, for example, which extends across the central portions of Alberta and Saskatchewan, was signed in 1876, the same year the IRS were established. At the request of the aboriginal treaty signatories, it promised that:
“Her Majesty [Queen Victoria] agrees to maintain schools for instruction in such reserves hereby made as to Her Government of the Dominion of Canada may seem advisable, whenever the Indians of the reserve shall desire it.”
Residential schools were subsequently established on the well-founded and altruistic notion that what remained of aboriginal beliefs and lifestyles in 1876 – over 300 years since first contact — together with the various social and economic pathologies that were supplanting them, were incompatible with a rapidly developing and modernizing country. The Federal government, along with several Christian denominations, saw their duty as helping indigenous people adapt to this reality which included the teaching of the Christian faith.
The cultural genocide charge is also rooted in weak social science. The legacy of the IRS – “the significant educational, income, health, and social disparities between Aboriginal people and other Canadians,” the negative effects of poor, abusive, or absent parenting, and high incarceration rates – has been found to be no greater among those who attended IRS than those who did not.
In developed countries like Canada, these disparities can be better explained as the product of widespread multi-generational welfare dependency, which social science research has firmly linked to feelings of marginality, helplessness, apathy, fatalism, and a lack of future orientation.
The role of the IRS in trying to mitigate many of these negative consequences is supported in the Report itself which states that during the 1950s and 1960s, up to 50% of IRS students were orphans or the offspring of “broken homes.” This looks like an effort by the federal government and the churches to save both the Indian and the child.
Moreover, the cultural genocide thesis ignores the indisputable fact that human beings can assimilate characteristics of two or more cultures, including unrelated languages. The TRC Report implies instead that cultural learning and retention are zero-sum games, ignoring the abundant evidence of the human capacity for “bi-culturation.” The truth of this is clearly seen in the diversity of Canadian society, where people from a vast array of cultures have successfully integrated into the multicultural mainstream, while retaining many of their native languages, beliefs, and cultural practices.
The TRC Report grudgingly (and perhaps inadvertently) acknowledges that this is as true for aboriginal Canadians as it is for millions of other Canadians when it states that “Aboriginal cultures and peoples have been badly damaged, [but] they continue to exist. Aboriginal people have refused to surrender their identity,” echoing Murray Sinclair’s 2010 statement that “Indians never assimilated.”
This may be the truest statement in the Report, and perhaps the most hopeful one, for it acknowledges that as hard as the IRS may have tried to absorb its students into mainstream culture, these efforts failed.
Still, these words cannot transcend the bitter and hyperbolic narrative of genocide and entitlement, now reinforced by the Pope’s visit. There seems little reason to believe that there will soon come a time when a proud and confident people are recognized – and recognize themselves – as full and equal citizens of Canada, instead of its eternal victims.