Reconciling A Cultural Genocide: TRC Calls to Action on Culture, Language and Education
Updated: Nov 13, 2021
Today we shift our focus from child welfare to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) Calls to Action on education and Indigenous cultures and languages. Over the next six weeks, we will cast light on the truth that our colonial past and the ongoing legacy of colonialism have nearly destroyed and continue to damage Indigenous Peoples’ cultures and languages. Colonialism has impeded Indigenous Peoples’ ability to pass their culture and language on to the next generation and has nearly destroyed them. We talk about these difficult truths because we all have an obligation to educate ourselves. Because education is a necessary step towards reconciliation.
Canada engaged in the cultural genocide of Indigenous Peoples on this land.
Canadian law does not include cultural genocide under its criminal prohibition of genocide. Currently, under both Canadian and international law, the term “genocide” is limited to the physical or biological destruction of the targeted group. The destruction of a people’s culture was expressly excluded from the international definition of the crime of genocide. During deliberations at the United Nations General Assembly Sixth Committee in 1948, Canada expressed a preference for language, religion and culture to fall within human rights protections, not the crime of genocide. Some scholars argue that Canada and other colonial states deliberately excluded the destruction of culture from the crime of genocide to avoid “criminaliz[ing] their own behavior” towards Indigenous peoples.
This is not to say that Canada did not engage in cultural genocide. It just means that Canada’s actions in this regard are not legally recognized as genocide.
Canadian Actions and Policies that Destroy(ed) Indigenous Culture
When the school is on the reserve the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write his habits, and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write.
—Sir John A. Macdonald in the House of Commons, 1883
The TRC defines cultural genocide as “the destruction of those structures and practices that allow the group to continue as a group.” In1820, Canada implemented a "civilization policy" towards Indigenous Peoples. In the decades that followed, Canada seized Indigenous land, sometimes taking it through fraud or coercion, restricted Indigenous Peoples to reserves, banned the use of Indigenous languages, prohibited Indigenous spiritual practices, and destroyed and confiscated Indigenous spiritual objects. These were deliberate actions to eradicate Indigenous ways of living and create "civilized Indians" who follow European traditions.
Dr. Leroy Little Bear of the Kainai First Nation identified colonial greed and conceit as the root causes of the over-hunting and near extinction of the buffalo, and the near destruction of the Blackfoot People. Greed because six months of working at Fort Whoop Up earned an American fur trader almost $50,000 (about $372,000 today). The land was rich in resources and was worth more to the colonial powers without Indigenous peoples on it. Conceit because Europeans felt superior to Indigenous Peoples and believed that the land was rightfully theirs as part of “manifest destiny”.
The Canadian cultural genocide culminated in the residential school project. Here, Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and communities for the express purpose of breaking the next generation’s connection to their Indigenous culture and identity. As last month’s blog posts showed, the Sixties Scoop and today’s colonial child welfare systems perpetuate these harmful policies by removing Indigenous children from their culture and language.
Canada attempted to sever Indigenous people’s connection to their culture and assimilate Indigenous people into European society. Canada intended to destroy the social fabric that enabled Indigenous Peoples to continue as a group. We cannot deny that Canada engaged in the cultural genocide of Indigenous Peoples.
Calls to Action on Education
The TRC set out a path to guide us through these difficult truths. Its Calls to Action on education has two aspects in this regard: first, it refers to the education of Indigenous children to enable communities to pass along their culture and language to the next generation; secondly, it calls upon all of us to learn.
We all have an obligation to learn about the history of Indigenous peoples and the truth about our harmful past and present. Merriam-Webster defines “reconcile” as “to cause to submit or accept something unpleasant”.We must educate ourselves before we can reconcile with our past. Only then can we move forward towards the next phase of reconciliation, “to restore friendship or harmony” between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Peoples.
Looking Forward, Towards Reconciliation
The future of reconciliation is positive. Dr. Little Bear told us of the resurgence of the buffalo and the Blackfoot People. The buffalo are coming back to the plains because of a massive effort that brings together First Nations, government agencies, and many non-governmental organizations from Canada to Mexico. The return of the buffalo is significant for the Blackfoot People. The buffalo “brings back the stories, the songs, the beliefs and the culture that was lost over the years.” The Blackfoot People are reviving their culture and language, and are passing them on to the next generation.
We leave you, dear readers, with Dr. Little Bear’s words. We ask that you carry these words through the next six weeks of our conversation about the TRC’s Calls to Action on education, culture and language. We ask that you keep an open mind to hearing the truth and to seeing a future path towards reconciliation.
Every morning we wake up and we simply do. But we never question the foundational base of what we do.
The TRC Final Report … is giving us a chance to reflect. Stop and reflect on how we do things. It may be that it is time to have a bit of a paradigm shift.
The paradigms and metaphysics we have been using are 600-700 years old from the enlightenment era and might be out of date.
Reflect and see if there is a better way to do things and a better way to relate.
—Dr. Leroy Little Bear
Until next time,
 Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Calls to Action, (Winnipeg: TRC Canada, 2015) [TRC, Calls to Action].  Criminal Code, RSC 1985, c C-46 at s. 320(8). Genocide is defined in Canada as “an act or omission committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, an identifiable group of persons, as such, that, at the time and in the place of its commission, constitutes genocide according to customary international law or conventional international law or by virtue of its being criminal according to the general principles of law recognized by the community of nations, whether or not it constitutes a contravention of the law in force at the time and in the place of its commission” (Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act, SC 2000, c 24 at art 4(3)).  See Thomas Johansson, “Cultural Genocide in International Law: An Assessment” (Bachelor of Laws with degree project, Örebro Universitet, 2019) [unpublished], online: DiVA <https://www.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:1353009/FULLTEXT01.pdf> at 32-33.  Ibid at 4-9.  Ibid at 8.  Ibid at 9 (quoting Christopher Powell, “What do Genocides Kill? A relational conception of genocide” (2007) 9 J of Genocide Research 527 at 532; and citing William A Schabas, Genocide in International Law (Cambridge University Press, 2002) at 184).  Ibid (citing Library and Archives Canada, RG10, volume 6810, file 470-2-3, volume 7, Evidence of D. C. Scott to the Special Committee of the House of Commons Investigating the Indian Act amendments of 1920, (L-2)(N-3)).  Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, What We Have Learned: Principles of Truth and Reconciliation, (Winnipeg: TRC Canada, 2015) at 5 [TRC, What We Learned].  Ibid.  Leroy Little Bear, “The Comeback: The Parallel Experiences of the Blackfoot and the Buffalo” (lecture delivered at the iniskim/University of Lethbridge PUBlic Speaker Series, 28 October 2021) online: YouTube <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_R2wH1w8qvw> at 00:07:45 to 00:15:30.  TRC, What We Learned, supra note 8 at 6.  TRC, Calls to Action, supra note 1 at numbers 6-17, 53, 55, 57, 59 62-66, 69(iii), 86-87, and 92(ii) and (iii).  Merriam-Webster Dictionary, sub verbo “reconcile”, online: Merriam-Webster <https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/reconcile>.  Ibid.  Little Bear, supra note 10 at 00:15:30 to 00:35:09.  Ibid (unrecorded question and answer session, cited with permission).  Ibid (unrecorded question and answer session, cited with permission).