The article you just read was brought to you by a few thousand dedicated readers. Will you join them?

Thanks for coming by The Tyee and reading one of many original articles we’ll post today. Our team works hard to publish in-depth stories on topics that matter on a daily basis. Our motto is: No junk. Just good journalism.

Just as we care about the quality of our reporting, we care about making our stories accessible to all who want to read them and provide a pleasant reading experience. No intrusive ads to distract you. No paywall locking you out of an article you want to read. No clickbait to trick you into reading a sensational article.

There’s a reason why our site is unique and why we don’t have to rely on those tactics — our Tyee Builders program. Tyee Builders are readers who chip in a bit of money each month (or one-time) to our editorial budget. This amazing program allows us to pay our writers fairly, keep our focus on quality over quantity of articles, and provide a pleasant reading experience for those who visit our site.

In the past year, we’ve been able to double our staff team and boost our reporting. We invest all of the revenue we receive into producing more and better journalism. We want to keep growing, but we need your support to do it.

Fewer than 1 in 100 of our average monthly readers are signed up to Tyee Builders. If we reach 1% of our readers signing up to be Tyee Builders, we could continue to grow and do even more.

If you appreciate what The Tyee publishes and want to help us do more, please sign up to be a Tyee Builder today. You pick the amount, and you can cancel any time.

Support our growing independent newsroom and join Tyee Builders today.
Before you click away, we have something to ask you…

Do you value independent journalism that focuses on the issues that matter? Do you think Canada needs more in-depth, fact-based reporting? So do we. If you’d like to be part of the solution, we’d love it if you joined us in working on it.

The Tyee is an independent, paywall-free, reader-funded publication. While many other newsrooms are getting smaller or shutting down altogether, we’re bucking the trend and growing, while still keeping our articles free and open for everyone to read.

The reason why we’re able to grow and do more, and focus on quality reporting, is because our readers support us in doing that. Over 5,000 Tyee readers chip in to fund our newsroom on a monthly basis, and that supports our rockstar team of dedicated journalists.

Join a community of people who are helping to build a better journalism ecosystem. You pick the amount you’d like to contribute on a monthly basis, and you can cancel any time.

Help us make Canadian media better by joining Tyee Builders today.
We value: Our readers.
Our independence. Our region.
The power of real journalism.
We're reader supported.
Get our newsletter free.
Help pay for our reporting.
Indigenous Affairs
Rights + Justice

Why Canada and Genocide Belong in the Same Sentence

Was there a pre-meditated plan to cause Indigenous people such suffering? Undeniably.

By Rick Harp 8 Jun 2019 |

Rick Harp is a founder and president of the INDIGENA Creative Group, having hosted and produced with the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network for many years and served as artistic director for the Winnipeg Aboriginal Film Festival. He is a member of the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation in northern Saskatchewan.

[Author’s note: An edited version of this was published by Ricochet in January 2015. Last week I republished it on Media Indigena in its original form, prompted by the refusal of some pundits to even admit the possibility of a Canadian genocide, a term that’s been given renewed currency by the June 3 release of the Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. You can listen to my related podcast here.]

Is Canada guilty of its own genocide? There was a time — not all that long ago — that to even raise the question would be to invite all manner of ridicule.

How things have changed. Today, the topic has shifted from something whispered at the margins to the source of serious study and open debate. Multiple books, even entire conferences, have been dedicated to the subject, less about its plausibility and more about what enabled its possibility. But, for all the increased attention, the question is what action has followed.

[In late 2014], I and about 300 other people at a national Indigenous health conference held in Toronto attended a panel entitled “Genocide: The Canadian Perspective.” Addressing the crowd were neurosurgeon and philanthropist Michael Dan, former Canadian Jewish Congress CEO and rights advocate Bernie M. Farber, as well as former leader of the Assembly of First Nations Phil Fontaine, now an advisor to Royal Bank.

As it turns out, it was the non-Aboriginal panelists who came across as the more adamant: their forceful argumentation suggested they harboured no doubts whatsoever as to the applicability of genocide to the Canadian context. That’s quite something when you consider Farber’s father was one of only two Jewish survivors of the Nazi purge of his hometown in Poland.

But if denial of a Canadian genocide is no longer so automatic, does such recognition or acceptance go very far? For example, like Farber, what often gets my back up is some people’s insistence on using the phrase “cultural genocide” (or “ethnocide”) to describe the wrongs waged by the Canadian state and populace against Indigenous peoples. Frankly, for me, it feels like a qualifier, a way to diminish and somehow contain the effects of that conduct — even excuse it. As if to say, “Sure, I grant that the government did some pretty shitty things way back when, but, c’mon, it’s not like we dropped a H-bomb to wipe you guys off the face of the planet, right?” (I must confess, some F-bombs of my own rush to mind at such moments.)

But here’s the thing: according to Raphael Lemkin, the man who coined the term genocide (and thus exerted great influence on the moral, legal and political framework that followed), this crime against humanity doesn’t necessarily require the total physical annihilation of a people.

Instead, Lemkin wrote, genocide is “the criminal intent to destroy or cripple permanently a human group” (emphasis mine). As to what constitutes ‘crippling,’ it seems likely he’d admit such bedrock Canadian policies as the single-minded, systematic effort to eradicate the linguistic and spiritual foundations of some 60 distinct Indigenous peoples via residential schools.

And yet, for some, there’s a word in Lemkin’s sentence that either attenuates or outright absolves Canada’s responsibility for genocide, the word intent. Did Canada really mean to cause Indigenous populations such pain and suffering out of some perversely pre-meditated plan? Didn’t the country force thousands of Aboriginal children into those schools ‘in good faith,’ only to later realize the damage these institutions had inflicted? It’s a convenient cop-out, one many fall back on to escape justice or evade guilt.

How inconvenient then are the facts of the matter, a number of which came up in Michael Dan’s methodical indictment of ‘Indian’ residential schools. According to Dan, decision-makers knew as early as 1907 of the “public health crisis” ripping through some schools, with Aboriginal students suffering outrageously high death rates (24 to 69 per cent) due to tuberculosis, which thrived amidst the overcrowded, dilapidated schools. And yet, “Canada chose to do nothing,” building some new schools but leaving the older ones intact.

Which means that when attendance was made mandatory for all Status Indian children by 1920, the use of these veritable death traps was, according to Dan, “intended, by omission, to bring about the physical suffering and destruction of an entire group.” Clearly, more than languages died within those insidious institutions, and not by what we could call chance.

Farber, meanwhile, cited recently published scholarship by University of Regina professor James Daschuk as evidence of Canada’s genocidal intent. In his acclaimed book, Clearing the Plains, Daschuk documents the deliberate, often fatal, campaign of starvation prime minister John A. Macdonald imposed upon Indigenous peoples as a way to relocate them off their lands and thus make room for immigration and a railroad.

To Farber, the parallels that can be drawn between these sickening tactics and those of another genocide — that of Holodomor, when millions in the Ukraine died due to famine engineered under Stalin — are both obvious and apt. The difference is but in scale.

For his part, Fontaine said he agreed “100 per cent” with his fellow panelists. He also spoke candidly about why the multi-billion-dollar residential school survivor settlement he helped negotiate made no explicit mention of genocide: “Even though we knew people deserved more, we also knew it would see nothing happen if we pushed for its inclusion.”

Fontaine then alluded to the manifold challenges First Nations continue to endure as a living legacy of the depravity of successive Canadian governments: ill health, poverty, a severe housing deficit, poor access to drinking water, and, perhaps most staggering of all, current numbers of children in state custody that surpass the levels achieved at the height of the residential schools era.

As Farber has notably stated at the event and elsewhere, Canada must finally face up to “a genocide in search of a name, but no longer in search of the facts.”

The sad and horrible truth is, it did happen here, and if we are to collectively move beyond this bloody history (the knock-on effects of which still clearly play out today), Canada must fully own and atone for what it’s done to this land’s original peoples on terms, and by means, agreeable to both sides.  [Tyee]

Share this article

The Tyee is supported by readers like you

Join us and grow independent media in Canada

Facts matter. Get The Tyee's in-depth journalism delivered to your inbox for free

Tyee Commenting Guidelines

Do not:

  •  Use sexist, classist, racist or homophobic language
  • Libel or defame
  • Bully, threaten, name-call or troll
  • Troll patrol. Instead, downvote, or flag suspect activity
  • Attempt to guess other commenters’ real-life identities


  • Verify facts, debunk rumours
  • Add context and background
  • Spot typos and logical fallacies
  • Highlight reporting blind spots
  • Ignore trolls and flag violations
  • Treat all with respect and curiosity
  • Stay on topic
  • Connect with each other


The Barometer

Tyee Poll: Are You Preparing for the Next Climate Disaster?

Take this week's poll