A Canadian genocide in search of a name

Posted on in Equality History

TheStar.com – opinion/commentary – Canadians need to face the sad truth that the country engaged in a deliberate policy of attempted genocide against First Nations people.
Jul 19 2013.   By: Phil Fontaine, Dr. Michael Dan, & Bernie M. Farber

Canadians have been staggered by the news arising from a University of Guelph study which proves that in our lifetime Canadian authorities knowingly and wilfully starved aboriginal children in residential schools. Their incomprehensible rationale: they wanted to conduct nutritional experiments on these famished children for future study.

It is time for Canadians to face the sad truth. Canada engaged in a deliberate policy of attempted genocide against First Nations people. And the starvation experiments were only the first of a litany of similar such attempts to control, delegitimize and, yes, even annihilate First Nations to suit the needs of a growing Dominion.

Some have argued that the beginnings of this genocide had its seeds with the establishment of the Indian Act of 1876, which legalized First Nations as an inferior group and made them wards of the state. In truth, these were just words on paper compared with accusations lodged against the Canadian government by our first Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Peter Bryce, in 1907.

According to an academic study undertaken by Adam Green for the University of Ottawa, Dr. Bryce uncovered a “national crime” pertaining to the health of First Nations people. In a book Bryce wrote after he was summarily dismissed from his position for blowing the whistle on the Canadian government’s complicity in the mass deaths from tuberculosis of aboriginals on reserves and in residential schools, Bryce outline in detail what he observed.

According to Bryce, Canada’s aboriginal people in Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan were being “decimated by tuberculosis and that the federal government possessed the means to stop it.” Instead, it chose a such minimalist approach that, in the medical opinion of Dr. Bryce, it “amounted to almost nothing.”

The government of the day sought to hide Bryce’s findings from the general public and chose to bury the report and relieve Bryce of his duties. This had the effect of ensuring that no real steps would be taken to help save the lives of natives on reserves and in residential schools from the ravages of this disease. Indeed, Bryce was so frustrated that in the end he charged that “the government’s treatment of it’s aboriginal peoples amounted to nothing less than an infuriating and criminal disregard to the country’s Treaty pledges.”

It would be the easy course for us to continue to turn our backs and pretend that Canada would simply never have engaged in a deliberate attempt to destroy aboriginal people. However, the facts seem to point ominously to that conclusion.

We must ask ourselves: When does genocide become genocide? This might seem an absurd question, but history isn’t always forthcoming with a neat little package bearing the label “genocide, open with caution.” The definition of genocide is quite clear, however:

. . . 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

Under this definition, Canada’s treatment of its First Nations, even in our own lifetime, meets the genocide test:

  • The recently exposed nutrition experiments carried out in the residential schools meets the criteria under point (b).
  • The residential school system itself, and the practice of forcibly removing First Nations children from reserves and placing them with adoptive non-aboriginal families, common in the 1960s, and referred to as Sixties Scoop, meet the criteria under point (e).
  • The decision by the government in the 1900s to allow native children to die of tuberculosis meet the criteria under point (c).

This list is by no means exhaustive.

In 1910, Duncan Scott, then head of Canada’s residential schools, refuting the high death rate in his schools as reported in the Bryce’s study, wrote:

“But this does not justify a change in the policy of this Department which is geared toward a Final Solution of our Indian Problem (our emphasis).”

The Government of Canada currently recognizes five genocides: the Holocaust, the Holodomor, the Armenian genocide, the Rwandan genocide and Srebrenica.

The time has come for Canada to formally recognize a sixth genocide, the genocide of its own aboriginal communities; a genocide that began at the time of first contact and that was still very active in our own lifetimes; a genocide currently in search of a name but no longer in search of historical facts.


Phil Fontaine is the former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Dr. Michael Dan and Bernie M. Farber are the president and senior vice-president respectively of Gemini Power Corporation, working with First Nations to build sustainable industries.

< http://www.thestar.com/opinion/commentary/2013/07/19/a_canadian_genocide_in_search_of_a_name.html >

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4 Responses to “A Canadian genocide in search of a name”

  1. Having read the shocking article on the attempted cultural genocide of First Nations people, I think it is an important article as it explicitly argues the case of genocide within the borders of Canada. The article effectively conveys the suffering endured by First Nation children through the nutritional experiments. Moreover, the most upsetting aspect of this article is the evidence depicting the continuation of these atrocities within the past couple of decades. The author Phil Fontaine outwardly acknowledges the atrocities toward the First Nation People and effectively campaigns for more Canadians to actively address the issue and recognize the “sixth genocide, the genocide of its own aboriginal communities”.
    The article is culturally relevant but also a shocking awakening for most Canadians who failed to recognize that genocide is a part of Canada’s history. Furthermore, Fontaine reveals the appalling truth about the ill-treatment of our own aboriginal communities and conveys, arguably for the first time, that genocide is no longer confined to other continents such as the Rwandan genocide. Therefore, the article perpetuates the notion of exposing the scandals of the Canadian government and forces Canadians to stop denying the existence of racial profiling and cultural genocide. This article resonates deeply with myself as I have lived through the Rwandan genocide and have had first-hand experience of the terrors associated to it. The discrimination that the Aboriginal people encountered is similar to the cultural discrimination that was experienced by the people of Rwanda. Therefore, I can relate to a certain degree to the First Nation People since I have been through a very horrific similar experience. Although Canada is a first world, developed country many of the acts that occurred against the Aboriginal’s are similar to those that were experienced by people who reside in a third world, undeveloped country such as Rwanda.

  2. Unfortunately, the issue presented in this article does not surprise me in the least. The ongoing discrimination towards our First Nations people has been long endured, and sadly, continues to be an issue most Canadian’s refuse to take seriously; if they acknowledge the oppression at all. While reading the article, what I found to be shameful was the idea that Canadian’s are still in denial that our “prosperous”, “accepting”, “multi-cultural” country could be responsible for the attempted mass genocide of First Nations people. How this information is “newly found” is beyond my comprehension as I truly thought most Canadian’s were aware of the real purpose behind the residential schools. It seems that the only solution the federal government of Canada is interested in pursuing is the path of silencing the voices to which fight for justice. This seems to be evident in the outcome of Dr. Bryce as the information released from the study lead to his dismissal.

    The second piece of the article that stood out to me was when the authors stated that the establishment of the Indian Act in 1876 actually legalized First Nations people as an inferior group. I was unaware that the Canadian government had the authority or audacity to actually organize people into a legal segregated group. How counter productive is that? The real question is how is it so unfathomable that our government could be accountable for an attempted genocide, when the Indian Act of 1876 is all the proof we need. Who on this earth has any right, to deem any group of people as an inferior race?

    Once again this article stands out to me as it describes the fight for First Nation’s recognition for the inhumane and unjust treatment that have, and continue to endure. I have high hopes that one day our Government will acknowledge and provide the apology that is deserved, however, I truly believe that until we have a change in political ideologies, I doubt the needs of First Nation’s people will take precedence.

    The goals of a government of course, should always be to promote and empower their people. This should be inherent, regardless of a person’s culturally identity.
    How can the First Nation’s people begin their healing process when the government of Canada continues to ignore, oppress and desolate all actions taken towards righting the humanitarian wrongs we have committed? Why is it, that time and time again, we acknowledge these horrid acts inflicted towards these people, yet have come no further in relevant society? So, have we really acknowledged our wrongful doings? Or are our acknowledgments as disengenuine as Harper’s heartfelt apology on behalf of the Canadian Conservative government.

    I’m not convinced that Canada had no idea that we played any part in the attempted mass genocide of an entire culture, because quite frankly we have. One quote that really means something to me, that I believe is fitting for this ongoing political issue, is something Mother Theresa stated. “If you want to be against war, do not be anti-war, be Pro Peace”. When you adopt anti-war as a way of fighting against war you are still contributing to war in some way. Pro peace shares nothing in common with war. I think the same ideology should be adapted in resolving issues with our First Nation’s communities and their ongoing war for equal treatment. This ideology seems much more progressive and promising than what we, as Canadian’s are doing now.

    Overall, I enjoyed reading this article. The article provoked me to think, to question, and to challenge the idea of how our political systems work. I agree with the authors and support the actions of Dr. Bryce and commend his efforts towards shedding light on such a dim topic. Perhaps, the most significant piece this article has given me, is the perspective on the importance of collectivity within a society and why a progressive means of practice may prove to be more promising, in the ongoing struggle to co-exist.

  3. “It’s in the past, let it go,” a statement that is used for many things, this unequal treatment is not just in the past, it is still happening. Although contemporary politics has been pushing for equality among races and genders for many years, genocide is still being committed to this day against other races. We donate funds and food sources to individuals in Third World Countries, or Food Banks because they are starving and cannot afford to live. This is exactly what is happening to Aboriginal People in Canada today. They are living in Third World conditions.

    The cost of essentials is unbelievably high, because of the lengths it takes to transport these products to reservations and communities. People are in unacceptable living conditions, without heat, proper plumbing and clean water. This is happening in Canada, our country. People are suffering, to this day, the aftermath of the Residential School system. Mental illness, depression, and posttraumatic stress are effecting Aboriginal People and their families, not only because they don’t have access to the help they need and deserve, but it is being normalized, offering funds won’t fix an emotional injury. Their leaders should be treated with the same respect as our leaders, but they are not. We are not treating everyone equally, this article should be that push we need to change the way we treat people in Canada. Being able to admit we are wrong is the first step to fixing the issue.

  4. I chose to read this article because this is a subject that hits home with me. Growing up on Manitoulin Island I am very familiar with First Nations culture and history and find myself somewhat intrigued with it. This article does a very good job of outlining some of the terrible things that happened to the First Nations people of our country. It poses the idea of labelling what has happened as genocide. As it proves in the article, it is genocide as it clearly meets the criteria of the definition of genocide. I believe this article provides readers with knowledge about truths that may be hidden. The author does an excellent job of covering exactly why this event in history should be considered genocide and points out multiple events, such as the starvation of First Nations people, which provide reason for his opinion.
    As someone who is struck by this article I would like to add that I believe the author is right in his opinion. What has happened in our history to the First Nations people is terrible and the fact that it was encouraged to be covered up is even worse. I’ve grown up with many native friends and to think that these are things that have happened to their grandparents, and sometimes even parents, is unimaginable. These are people, not savage animals. I believe identifying this event in history as genocide is the right thing to do because it is the truth. Deliberately attempting to destroy the Aboriginal People is genocide. If we allow ourselves to be knowledgeable on this event we can better understand and help First Nations people who have suffered from this as well as learn from it and assure nothing like this ever happens again in our country.


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