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Canadians Rise Up Against the Country’s History of Genocide

In recent weeks, as the horrors perpetrated in the Canadian governments residential schools have been crystalized by the discovery of a series of mass graves of Indigenous children killed in the system, the country has erupted in a spate of Catholic churches burnt, church buildings covered by graffiti, and statues of those whose responsible for the murders toppled.

Rob Lyons

July 6, 2021
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Protesters marching on Canada Day. A sign has the Canadian colors and says "No Pride in Genocide."
Photo: AP

Originally published in La Izquierda Diario Costa Rica

In recent weeks, as the horrors perpetrated in the Canadian governments residential schools have been crystalized by the discovery of a series of mass graves of Indigenous children killed in the system, the country has erupted in a spate of Catholic churches burnt, church buildings covered by graffiti, and statues of those whose responsible for the murders toppled.

The depth of anger displayed by these latest public revelations matches the level of despair being felt in Indigenous communities from coast to coat and across Canada. This outburst of righteous indignation has its roots in the daily existence of a people who have been the victims of a deliberate policy of genocide by centuries of successive federal governments whose aim has been to eradicate the Indigenous population of Canada, first by way of physical extermination and then through the assimilation of the native peoples through the destruction of their language, beliefs and cultural practices.

The use of the term genocide is not an exaggerated one. The definition of genocide is contained in section 2 of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention of Genocide and lists the following as characteristics of genocide:

In the present Convention, genocide means 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

By all counts the governments of Canada have been guilty of all elements of this definition of genocide. There is not one act in the above list which the Canadian state and its predecessors, the French and British colonial offices, have not perpetrated against the indigenous peoples of the northern half of North America. But could it be otherwise?

Canada was occupied by European peoples in the same manner that the whole of the Americas became a killing ground for Spanish, French and British colonialism. The genocide of the indigenous peoples of the Americas is an integral part of the history of European colonialism, a history which is both ongoing and which has produced more than 400 years of active resistance stretching the length of the Americas.

Defense of their land and defense of their inherent right to self-determination have been at the part of that resistance, a resistance which is seen today in the struggle of the Mapuche peoples of Patagonia and southern Chile against the trans-nationals corporations backed by the armed forces of the oligarchic states, the struggle of the peoples of the Guatemalan highlands against Canadian mining companies or the Garifuna peoples of Honduras fighting to keep their land from the clutches of Canadian real estate developers, to the land defenders of Idle Nor More opposing the expansion of the hydrocarbon networks of pipelines crossing ecological and cultural sensitive areas in the plains of North America and the forests and mountains of British Columbia and Alberta.

The Canadian Residential School System: an Instrument of Genocide

The Canadian Indigenous residential school system had been a key element in the genocidal policies of the Canadian state for more than 100 years. It was a system of residential schools which housed tens of thousands of indigenous children kidnapped from their families by the state police, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, a force first created to crush the rebellion of Metis and Indian peoples in what is now the province of Saskatchewan.

The first residential school was established in 1830 on the Mohawk Grand River reserve in Brantford, Ontario and the last school was closed in 1996 on the Gordon’s Indian reserve in Saskatchewan.

These kidnapped children were forced to attend the schools under the legal fiction of the Indian Act which required that indigenous children be compelled to attend day or residential schools. Since many of these children were from remote communities or from reserves where there were no educational facilities, they were then ‘legally’ kidnapped by the Canadian state.

The 80 residential schools were operated by various religious institutions with the primary organizations being the Catholic (44 schools) and Anglican (21 schools) religious denominations. The schools were established as far from indigenous communities as possible in order to limit contact between the children and their parents and siblings. This was a deliberate policy, part of the overall policy aim of the schools which was to assimilate the indigenous children into the white European cultural, deemed by the dominant ideology to be one ‘more civilized’ than the varied cultural life of the indigenous peoples.

The policy was best expressed by Hayter Reed (1849-1936) the Commissioner for Indian Affairs, a stereotypical functionary of the times, who argued that building residential schools at a great distance would reduce family contact and hence enhance the policy of assimilation. Reed also introduced a ‘pass’ system, which he himself acknowledged as illegal, which further restricted contact as it confined Indian people to their reserves unless they were granted a ‘mobility pass’ by the local Indian Affairs agent.

They Knew About the Murdered Children

In 2008 the Canadian government, under pressure from the United Nations and in part to deflect from a charge of genocide being laid at the International Court of Justice, established a ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission’(TRC) as part of a political exercise to appear to distance itself from the policies of previous governments. The aim of the TRC was to attempt to provide closure of the worst aspects of the policies of the Indian Affairs Department and to publicize the realities of the residential school survivors.

During the three year-long exercise, thousands of former residential school students testified to the horrors they witnessed in the schools: beatings, rapes by priests and nuns, babies being burnt in school furnaces, the use of deliberate starvation to induce and ensure compliance to the rules.
Students at these schools were forbidden to speak their own language, and to engage in any indigenous cultural practices whatsoever.

As part of that testimony, the survivors spoke about the mass unmarked graves at the school grounds, where burials were seen as common occurrence. There were a recorded 150,000 detainees at these schools, and there are an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 children who died at the hands of the school system.

The government has no official records that they are releasing about the number of deaths at the schools however, claiming that because the schools were run by religious orders, the school records were in the hands of church officials. The government has known about this for decades. In several reports to the Department of Indian Affairs by both doctors and by teachers, the conditions in the schools were exposed in plain language. In one school, the teachers reported that up to 25% of the children who started school there died before they were able to graduate, and they called for the government to establish a commission to examine the state of affairs in the schools.

So, when the existence of the mass graves was verified by the efforts of the indigenous nations themselves, in site after site on the former residential schools properties, these hated symbols of genocide, the horror of the thousands of children killed there has produced a mass movement in Canadian society in solidarity with the indigenous peoples.

Canadian now know what the federal and provincial governments have always known, that they have been part of the mass murder of children. This has unleashed a wave of revulsion and anger which has shown itself in hundreds of acts of solidarity with the indigenous peoples.

A Mass Social Movement to Challenge Racism in the Imperialist Canadian State

Canada, as a colonial settler country, has racism built into its DNA. Racism is an essential ideological component of colonialism and imperialism. It is that part of the dominant capitalist ideology which proclaims that the colonizer and the imperialist are bringing civilization, democracy and enlightenment to those being colonized and dominated by the great capitalist organizations of Europe and North America.

As an oppressed people, the indigenous peoples of the Americas have all suffered from the same racist tropes: that they are savages, uncivilized, lazy, shiftless, without morals or morality. These stereotypes have been and are being applied in a million different ways, some subtle, some not to any of the subjugated peoples of Africa, Asia, Australia or the Americas. In Europe these tropes have been applied to the Slavs, the Jews and the Roma for centuries as a means to legitimize the occupation and colonization of the Balkans and Eastern Europe, from Poland to the steppes of Russia.

The importance of the mass movement now emerging in solidarity with the indigenous peoples of Canada can lay the basis for a social force able to challenge that dominant narrative. Its political repercussions have been felt in small towns and great cities where the cancellation of Canada Day, the July 1 celebration of the official establishment of the Canadian state, were codified in proclamations from town and city councils across the country.

The All Children’s Lives Matter movement, symbolized by the orange shirts with that slogan, demand the inclusion of Indigenous peoples as an intrinsic part of Canadian society, while recognizing their status oppressed nations within the Canadian state.

This movement represents a real change in the attitude of Canadians and provides an opportunity to build a solidarity movement where the demands of the First Nations people for fresh water on their reserves, for decent housing, for a quality Indian-band controlled educational system and for the development of economic organisms which are also part of the indigenous collective form of social production, are demands which can link the oppressed and exploited across Canada, and can provide links of solidarity internationally as well.

Indigenous peoples have been in the forefront of the movements to defend the Earth from the rape and despoiling of the land’s resources. This movement is an international one, as can be read in the pages of “La Lucha Indigena”, the newsmagazine produced by the collective headed by Hugo Blanco, the former leader of the mass peasant self-defense force in the Convention Valley of Peru.

The uprising in Canada is ultimately linked to the land question, a question of great import in understanding indigenous resistance examined by the Peruvian Marxist Jose Mariategui in the 1930s, and the driving force of the international indigenous resistance.

The burning of the churches, the symbol of that resistance, has itself a history in the years of resistance to the residential school system. Churches and schools were burnt throughout those years. It is important to understand that the churches, particularly the Catholic church, has played a key role in the attempt to marginalize and erase indigenous peoples wherever it has marched hand in hand with colonial and imperialist occupiers. Canada has been no different, and so the burning of the churches is a political act of resistance against the role the church plays in the genocide of the First Nations peoples.

What has changed is the political climate within which indigenous resistance is taking place. The mass outpouring of solidarity with that resistance has signaled a change in Canadian social dynamics, linked to two key processes at work. The first is the role which the land protectors, headed by a series of First Nations in confrontations with the Canadian state has highlighted the struggle against the destruction of the earth and the climate change movements. The demands of the First Nations peoples are the demands and themes aligned with the eco-socialist movement.

Similarly, the forms of struggle are those familiar to the social and trade union movements: the mass actions of blockades, occupations, confrontations with the forces of the states, and the threat of armed resistance, are the familiar tools of the resistance. Armed confrontations with the Canadian state are nothing new. The two best known confrontations in the last few decades at Oka in Quebec, and Ipperwash in Ontario, resulted in a significant victories for the indigenous resistance.

The second key element in the process of radicalization of the politics of resistance is a sociological one. Canadian society has undergone a profound change in the ethnic and national structure, with large populations of people from South and South East Asia and China, as well as a generational shift which has meant a shift in attitude. The children of the baby boomers, now in their thirties and forties, have time and again in surveys shown that their political inclinations are to the left, and that they are less racist, sexist and homophobic than those of the previous generation.

These young workers are in the front lines of the social devastation wrought by an aging and decrepit capitalism. They understand the system doesn’t work for them.

They see the obscene conspicuous consumption of the likes of a Bezos or Gates or Slim or Weston at a time when homelessness grows by leaps and bounds, when the solutions to a medical crisis which threatens all humanity are blocked by the notions of intellectual property, and when daily the climate provides more proof of the coming apocalypse. These are the people who have the potential to become part of the revolutionary vanguard which can put an end to the ravages of imperialism, and who are showing by their actions of solidarity with the indigenous resistance that they are moving in that direction.

Given the generalized crisis of capitalism globally, and the rising tide of class struggle internationally, itself a product of the changing nature of work and lack opportunities for working class young people, this confluence of processes can result in a politicization of the Canadian working class greater than that of the 1930s and 1940s, and the building of a hegemonic political block, and revolutionary socialist organizations with indigenous peoples as part of that leadership, which can be forged in the struggle to defeat the imperialist Canadian state and its ruling class, an integral part of North American imperialism.

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Rob Lyons

Rob Lyons joined the Canadian section of the USFI in 1971, after a stint as a journalist who covered the Prague Autumn of 1968, and as political organizer for the New Democratic Youth, the left wing youth group of the Canadian labour party based on the trade unions. Until recently, he was the International Coordinator for Socialist Action/Ligue pour lÁction Socialiste, a Canadian Trotskyist organization excluded from the EUSecFI, and in that capacity attended the founding conference of the Tendency for a Revolutionary International. He has been a wilderness and air ambulance pilot, a trade union organizer, and elected union leader, and for 10 years was an elected member of the Saskatchewan, Canada, provincial legislature representing a heavily unionized, working class constituency. He presently writes political commentary and organizes from a working class barrio in southern Costa Rica.

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