Canadian Museum for Human Rights ignores residential schools, forced removal of children, and genocide


Seeking the right word for a history of suffering


 Seeking the right word for a history of suffering

Residential school children students in a typical classroom. HANDOUT: Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

At a recent gathering of the elders of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, the audience was given a preview of a "spirit tour" of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, scheduled to open this fall in Winnipeg.

The content and guiding of the tour is entirely under the control of the Aboriginal people of Manitoba, and it will reflect the collective views of the five indigenous inhabitants of the land where the museum is situated: the Anishinaabe, Mushkegowuk, Dakota, Dene, and M├ętis. The tour will highlight the many Aboriginal themes embodied in the architecture of the museum itself. Notably absent from the "spirit tour" is any mention of residential schools, forced removal of children, or genocide.

For many of Canada's First Nations, the traumatic memories of the residential schools are so fresh some individuals are reluctant even to acknowledge them. One elder told the group he "was in prison for 10 years. Not a federal prison. A residential school," and that during his decade-long incarceration, he lost the most precious thing in the world: his mother's love. Another elder simply didn't want his grandchildren and great-grandchildren to know what he went through.

It was like being in a room full of Holocaust survivors.

As Canada's First Nations wait for the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, due out in July, 2015, they struggle with the grey zone between cultural genocide and outright genocide. The Anishinaabe language is more descriptive than technical, and it lacks a word that adequately describes either form of genocide. To fill this gap, Elder Fred Kelly proposed the term aangone'itewin (aungo-nay-it-te-win).

The root of the word is aangone which translates as "extinction." Addition of the suffix 'itewin refers to the act of exterminating, obliterating, or annihilating living beings; causing extinction of beings, as in genocide. In the Anishinaakek tongue, aangone'itewin describes something that is irretrievably lost, and to the Anishinaabe who still speak their language, the term has profound meaning.

The road to aangone'itewin was not a straight line. It proceeded down a slippery slope. Students of the Holocaust are familiar with this concept because the road to Auschwitz was preceded by a series of events that began with a climate of intense bigotry and racism, followed by the passage of laws limiting the scope of professional activities, then the Nuremberg Laws, Kristallnacht, forced resettlement in ghettos, and so on. It wasn't until the Wannsee Conference, in January, 1942, that Nazi Germany became frankly genocidal, and proposed the Final Solution to the so-called Jewish Question.

Not all genocides involve death squads and extermination camps. Article II of the United Nations' Convention on the Prevention and Persecution of the Crime of Genocide (1948) states that the forced transfer of children from one group to another group is a form of genocide. In such an instance, the victims of the genocide survive, but their identities are permanently altered.


According to historians of Aboriginal life such as Professor James Daschuk and Indigenous writers like Thomas King and others, for Canada's First Nations, the slippery slope of aangone'itewin unfolded as follows:

In the 17th century, shortly after making contact with Europeans, First Nations entered into a voluntary economic relationship (the fur trade), in exchange for goods that they deemed of value, including metal objects.

Contact with Europeans also meant contact with European diseases, and by 1730, First Nations communities were being devastated by infectious diseases to which they had no immunity. Eventually, First Nations were obligated to trade furs for food and clothing - items they were previously able to provide for themselves. The economic relationship with Europeans was no longer voluntary.

The fur trade continued without regulation for many decades, and was an ecological disaster from all points of view. Overtrapping made First Nations dependant on Europeans for guns and more effective hunting methods.

Alcohol was introduced by Europeans, and First Nations developed a chemical dependency. First Nations were now trading furs in exchange for alcohol.

The Hudson's Bay Co. offered credit to First Nations. This created a financial dependency for the first time.

Missionaries arrived, and First Nations became dependant on Europeans for medical care during disease epidemics, which continued well into the 20th century.

In the prairies, the buffalo were hunted to extinction by 1880, and First Nations were forced to take up farming. This made them dependant on European farming technology for survival. Malnutrition, famine, tuberculosis, and other communicable diseases ran rampant in First Nations communities. A humanitarian crisis developed in the last decades of the 19th century.

Ottawa used food rations to force First Nations into submitting to treaties. This paved the way for the transcontinental railway and still more epidemics, which could now spread at the speed of trains and steamships. An example is the influenza epidemic of 1889.

When food rations were cut back or mismanaged - a crime against humanity - some First Nations joined the North-West Rebellion in 1885.

After the failure of the Rebellion, First Nations who were deemed to be troublesome by Ottawa were deliberately and punitively starved in order to bring them in line - also an act of genocide.

First Nations freedom of movement was severely restricted under the so-called "pass laws," and they could not leave their reserves without first obtaining special passes from the "Indian Agent."

Those few First Nations who were successful at farming could not sell their produce off reserve. This type of economic exclusion prevented competition with European immigrants while stifling economic development on reserves.

First Nations women and young girls were forced into prostitution in order to obtain food for their families.

By the late 19th century, First Nations children as young as five were being forcibly removed from their families and placed in residential schools, where they were given a number instead of a name, forced to convert to Christianity, and accept that they belonged to an inferior race. First Nations languages were largely lost. Diseases, notably tuberculosis, were left untreated. Nutrition experiments were conducted, and Ottawa deliberately harmed the children under its care by withholding food. As a result, residential school survivors had no ability to parent.

The next generation - the children of residential school survivors - were parented so badly that in the 1960s, they were removed from reserves by social workers and placed with non-Aboriginal families. Raised as Europeans, they were left to discover for themselves their ancestors' true identity. Although it was believed at the time that such "mercy adoptions" were in the children's best interests, this act also constituted a form of genocide.

Former prime minister Paul Martin has already testified before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, stating that the residential schools constituted a form of cultural genocide. It is possible, even probable, that the genocide was more than just cultural. But this is a question for academics and politicians to sort out.

In the meantime, the victims now have a word, in their own language, to describe their suffering. And taking ownership of your suffering is the first step on the road to recovery.

Dr. Michael Dan is a former neurosurgeon who, as president and CEO of Gemini Power Corp., works to help First Nations develop sustainable industries on traditional territories.