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Did Canada commit a ‘cultural genocide’?

Children hold letters that spell "Goodbye" at Fort Simpson Indian Residential School, in Fort Simpson, Northwest Territories in a 1922 archive photo. REUTERS/J.F. Moran/Library and Archives Canada

Genocide might be one of the most hard-hitting words in the entire world. Coined by Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin in 1944, the word combined the Greek word "geno" (tribe) with the Latin word "cide" (killing) to create a new way to describe the deliberate and systematic destruction of a people. Upon formation in 1946, the United Nations made it a crime under international law and specifically defined what constitutes a genocide with 1948's Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPCG).

The word still carries incredible weight today, whether it's with President Obama describing Islamic State attacks as attempted genocide, or it's the Turkish government's steadfast international campaign to prevent the 1915 mass killings of Armenians being labeled a genocide. And this week, a landmark study in Canada has brought new debate over the very nature of the word genocide.

That study, written by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, offers a detailed and thorough examination of the practice of sending Canadian aboriginal children to attend state-funded residential schools.  It doesn't use the term genocide to describe a mass killing. Instead, the report is talking about what it labels a "cultural genocide" – the killing of a culture.

Canada's 'cultural genocide'

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is unequivocal that its study has proven a "cultural genocide."

"Physical genocide is the mass killing of the members of a targeted group, and biological genocide is the destruction of the group’s reproductive capacity," the report's introduction explains. "Cultural genocide is the destruction of those structures and practices that allow the group to continue as a group. States that engage in cultural genocide set out to destroy the political and social institutions of the targeted group. Land is seized, and populations are forcibly transferred and their movement is restricted. Languages are banned. Spiritual leaders are persecuted, spiritual practices are forbidden, and objects of spiritual value are confiscated and destroyed. And, most significantly to the issue at hand, families are disrupted to prevent the transmission of cultural values and identity from one generation to the next."

"In its dealing with Aboriginal people, Canada did all these things," the report continues.

The report, which took six years of remarkable research to produce, details how 150,000 children from aboriginal families were forced to attend over 130 Christian boarding schools between the 19th century and the 1970s with the purported aim of integrating them into Canadian society. Instead, the report found, native languages, religions and cultures were suppressed and many First Nation children faced physical and sexual abuse. At least 4,000 aboriginal children were estimated to have died in the schools, the report found, many buried in unmarked graves.

The report has been major news in Canada and it has met with some support. Last week, preempting the report's release, Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin offered her own perspective on Canada's treatment of First Nation people, and with it, became the most high-ranking official yet to use the term cultural genocide. Giving the fourth annual Pluralism Lecture at the Global Center for Pluralism in Ontario, McLachlin explained how Canadian society slowly worked out ways to exclude and dominate First Nations people.

“The objective – I quote from Sir John A. Macdonald, our revered forefather – was to ‘take the Indian out of the child,’ and thus solve what was referred to as the Indian problem," McLachlin said. "‘Indianness’ was not to be tolerated; rather it must be eliminated. In the buzz-word of the day, assimilation; in the language of the 21st century, cultural genocide.”

A disputed term

The concept of cultural genocide has a long, if marginalized history. In the book where he coined the term genocide, 1944's Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, Raphael Lemkin suggested that there could be a cultural element to the practice too. "Genocide has two phases," Lemkin wrote. "One, destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group; the other, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor."

However, despite considerable debate during the drafting sessions, the cultural element Lemkin referred to was not included in the 1948 Genocide Convention (the U.N. definition of genocide does include "forcibly transferring children of the group to another group," which some would argue constitutes cultural genocide). Later attempts to add it also failed. In terms of international law, exactly how cultural genocide should be defined isn't clear.

One factor behind this is that many see cultural genocide as a separate issue than genocide: Most obviously, one involves human beings being killed, the other doesn't. Because of this, many of the arguments against including cultural genocide under the broader banner of genocide state that the issue is already covered by human rights considerations. Some have rebutted this reasoning.

"The existing human rights scheme redresses the intentional and systematic eradication of a group’s cultural existence (for example, destroying original historical texts or prohibiting all use of a language) with the same mechanisms as it would consider the redaction of an art textbook. But cultural genocide is far more sinister," Professor David Nersessian of Babson College wrote in Human Rights Dialogue journal in 2005. "In such cases, fundamental aspects of a group’s unique cultural existence are attacked with the aim of destroying the group, thereby rendering the group itself (apart from its members) an equal object and victim of the attack."

This week, a debate over the nature of cultural genocide has been reignited again, with some in Canada arguing that the use of the word "genocide" at all was too far, implying Holocaust-style systematic murder. Others, however, argued that the phrase "cultural genocide" alone was not dramatic enough to describe the full extent of what happened and what continues to happen to aboriginal communities in Canada (just one remarkable modern figure: Aboriginals make up 4 percent of the Canadian population, but 16 percent of female murder victims and 12 percent of missing women).

The consequences

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report calls for a response of more than just words, warning that "apologies will ring hollow if Canada’s actions fail to produce the necessary social, cultural, political and economic change that benefits aboriginal peoples and all Canadians." The report includes a list of 94 reconciliatory recommendations for the Canadian government.

It seems clear that the cultural genocide tag may prove important, even if the Canadian government has not accepted it yet. While cultural genocide is not a universally accepted phrase, the United Nations quite clearly lists "forcibly transferring children of the group to another group" as part of the definition of a genocide. Canada only adopted a limited definition of genocide in 2000, and courts have rejected claims of genocide from native communities because Canada had no law banning genocide while the schools ran, according to the Globe and Mail.

Outside of Canada, renewed debate about the nature of cultural genocide could have wide-ranging effects. All around the world there are claims of cultural genocide: The Armenian Foreign Ministry has a Web page devoted to the concept, which it says coincided with the killings of 1915 and continues to the present day, and the Dalai Lama has accused the Chinese government of cultural genocide in its treatment of Tibetan culture. And the United States, Canada's neighbor, has been accused of cultural genocide in its handling of its own aboriginal community by activists such as Russell Means.

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