Indigenous leaders say a huge step towards healing and reconciliation from the horrors of the residential school system is for all Canadians to refer to what happened in those schools as acts of genocide, and one university professor says after what happened in Ottawa last week, the fact that it was genocide can’t be denied by Canadians any longer.
On Oct. 27, NDP MP Leah Gazan, who represents Winnipeg Centre, saw her motion calling on the federal government to recognize residential schools — which operated for more than a century in Canada — as a genocide pass unanimously in the House of Commons.
“Today I lift up survivors, families, and communities who have sacrificed so much in order for people across Canada to know the truth that what happened in residential schools was a genocide,” Gazan said in Parliament. “I’m grateful to Parliamentarians who unanimously passed my motion recognizing the truth of Canada’s history.
“I look forward to working with the government to ensure the will of Parliament is honoured by formally recognizing residential schools as genocide. Survivors deserve no less.”
Gazan’s motion referenced the United Nations Genocide Convention, which defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, including the killing of its members, causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group, deliberately imposing living conditions that seek to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part, preventing births, or forcibly transferring children out of the group to another group.”
The motion passed just months after Pope Francis visited Canada and said that he believes that what Indigenous people faced while being forced to attend residential schools, often at the hands of members of the Catholic Church, amounted to genocide.
The pontiff made the comment to reporters during a flight from Iqaluit back to Rome following his six-day tour of Canada in July.
Assistant professor of history and Indigenous studies at the University of Manitoba Sean Carleton said both the Pope’s admission and Parliament’s unanimous vote are important steps because people who deny that residential schools were genocide have now lost all legitimacy.
“The residential school system was run by church and state, and now both the church and state have acknowledged it was genocide, so that closes the book on any debate, and closes the book on denialism,” Carleton said. “This was genocide and that is a simple fact.
“And why it’s so important was because as long as the Catholic Church and the federal government continued to waffle on that, it gave space for denialists to have their talking points seem legitimate and now in the last six months that avenue has closed.
“Those who want to make excuses and downplay facts, well now all of that has proven to be not legitimate.”
He said now that the truth has been recognized by the federal government he hopes that it makes it easier for all Canadians to work towards reconciliation with Indigenous people.
“The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) made it very clear that without truth there can be no genuine progress towards reconciliation,” Carleton said. “So if people are spending their time debating the truth, then we’re not making any real progress on strengthening that relationship and moving forward.”
More than 150,000 Indigenous people in Canada were forced out of their homes, separated from their families and forced to attend residential schools while the system was running.
The system attempted to assimilate Indigenous children into western European culture by isolating them from their own culture, religion and families, and many of those children have reported being subject to physical, mental and sexual abuse while in residential schools.
The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs newly elected Grand Chief Cathy Merrick praised Gazan for her work to bring the “truth” to light in Parliament.
“We recognize the achievement of acknowledgement of truth for those that attended Indian residential schools that they fought so long and hard to have heard across Turtle Island,” Merrick said in a media release.
“We look forward to witnessing the next step in the process to have Canada formally recognize residential schools as genocide.
“I am grateful for the work of NDP member of Parliament Leah Gazan, for her relentless efforts to bring this motion forward and her continuing effort to bring this to the Canadian government’s table to face the truth of its history.”
— Dave Baxter is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Winnipeg Sun. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the government of Canada.