Dr. Dawg

"A final solution of our Indian problem"

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Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department. ~Duncan Campbell Scott

Did Canada commit the crime of genocide against its indigenous people?

Former head of the Canadian Jewish Congress Bernie Farber has a piece in today’s Ottawa Citizen about Duncan Campbell Scott, Canadian poet and, as the Deputy Minister of Indian Affairs from 1913 to 1932, the administrator of the residential school system for Canadian indigenous people. Farber’s emphasis is, unsurprisingly, on the harm he wrought in the latter respect, although Scott’s poetry—Maple Leaf School stuff of generally middling artistic merit—comes in for a mention as well.

D.C. Scott was clearly a grossly incompetent civil servant, and, judging from an angry post-retirement pamphlet by his medical officer of health, Dr. Peter Bryce, he was also a master of covering up and browbeating critics into silence. He played an active role in preventing the devastating effects of tuberculosis on the indigenous populations from being publicly discussed at the National Tuberculosis Association’s annual meeting in 1910, for example. While TB was wiping out the majority of pupils in some residential schools, Scott refused to lift a finger:

It is readily acknowledged that Indian Children lose their natural resistance to illness by habituating so closely in the residential schools and that they die at a much higher rate than in their villages. But this does not justify a change in the policy of this department which is geared toward a final solution of our Indian problem.

To get a sense of how Scott and his department abandoned the populations of those who were at the time regarded as wards of the state:

Thus we find a sum of only $10.000 has been annually placed in the estimates to control tuberculosis amongst 105,000 Indians scattered over Canada in over 300 bands, while the City of Ottawa, with about the same population and having three general hospitals spent thereon $342,860.54 in 1919 of which $33,364.70 is devoted to tuberculous patients alone.

We can see here obvious and wilful neglect in the certain knowledge that thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, will die as a result. Does this rise to the level of genocide?

Farber argues precisely that. Recently he co-authored a piece in the Toronto Star with former AFN head Phil Fontaine and his boss at Gemini Power Corporation, Dr. Michael Dan, which put the case squarely, measuring Canada’s record against the UN definition of genocide:

…any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

— Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, Article II

Needless to say, this has aroused the wrath of the Usual Suspects. Veteran Indian-fighter Ezra Levant suggests, for example, that only Jews have title to the word (Roma don’t count, as we know), and anachronistically refers to present-day federal spending in the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development.

But I will admit that I have been sceptical to some degree myself. Was there an organized plan to exterminate Canadian indigenous people? Well, the UN definition, as it turns out, doesn’t actually require it. (a) was done by deliberate neglect. (b) was the story of residential school life, enhanced recently by news that state-kidnapped children were the subject of medical experiments. (c) is more problematic, but the calculated neglect by the Indian Affairs department that resulted in literally thousands of dead children is arguably consistent with that part of the definition, which refers to human destruction “in whole or in part.” (d) might be taken to refer to the well-documented forced sterilizations of indigenous women that took place in the last century, particularly in Alberta. Finally, (e) is entirely consistent with Scott’s policy of assimilation, his expansion of the white-run residential school program in 1920, and various other measures, including mass removal and adoption of indigenous children in the 1960s.

At about the same time as Harper’s 2008 “apology” (which every day rings more hollow), a Truth and Reconciliation Commission finally got under way, with a five-year mandate, to hear first-hand accounts from residential school survivors. Part of its work involved sifting through a mountain of documents that bore on the tragedy, but the Harper government forced it to go to court to gain access to them. Meanwhile, the clock has been ticking, the TRC’s work must wrap up in a matter of months, and so a full examination will be impossible. Calls for an extension of the TRC’s mandate have gone unanswered. One might well wonder what the government has been trying to hide.

OK, some will say, the point has been made. But what’s in a name?

To begin with, there are several ways people tend to respond to an evil when they are confronted with evidence of it. They can say it never happened. They can say it isn’t what it appears. They can say it isn’t as bad as it appears. They can say they weren’t responsible for it—it’s ancient history. They can quibble with definitions. They can engage in legal prestidigitation: “Courts have rejected native claims of genocide against Ottawa and the churches because Canada had no law banning genocide while the schools were operating.” They can claim false closure: “We said we were sorry!”

There are too many examples of these and other moral manoeuvrings vis-à-vis the indigenous populations of Canada for links to be necessary.

For that reason, it makes both actual and strategic sense to adopt the use of the term “genocide” as defined by the UN to describe what Canada did to its indigenous peoples. First, as indicated, the historical record meshes with every single criterion set out in that definition. Second, giving a name to what our state inflicted upon those populations makes moral evasion very difficult. It forces us to confront a reality that indigenous people already know in their bones, both from direct experience and from the stories of their family elders. “Genocide” is our term, one that carries with it moral resonances that are almost impossible to shrug off or ignore.

And third, it is a simple, direct acknowledgement of a monstrous state crime, a statement to the indigenous peoples that runs far deeper than Harper’s empty “apology”: a powerful one-word gesture of reconciliation conveying the message that, at long last, we understand. It might even conceivably be the tipping point for a radical shift in government policy. But, at the very least, it would cut through centuries of elaborate rationalization and denial on one side of the fence, and a still-burning and entirely justified resentment on the other. We could look each other in the eye at last. And only then, perhaps, might a real dialogue begin.

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on August 29, 2013 2:07 PM.

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