I’m aware that Canada, unlike its southern neighbor in which I live, has just recently, ever so slightly, stood up to certain of the horrors of the Saudi government. I’m aware of the role Canada has played, albeit imperfectly, as a refuge for people fleeing U.S. slavery and U.S. wars and general U.S. backwardness. I’m aware of how many times through history the United States has attacked Canada. I’m aware that just several yards in front of me as I sit in my outdoor office (the downtown mall of Charlottesville) a small army is gleefully creating a police state on the anniversary of a Nazi rally at which similar numbers of soldiers, similarly armed, stood by and watched fascist violence last year. I agree with Robin Williams’ characterization of Canada as a nice apartment over a meth lab.
But here’s the thing. I’m a world citizen not owned by the Pentagon. When we hold World BEYOND War’s annual global conference in Toronto next month, Canadians will, if they are like most people on earth, be eager to discuss Canada’s shortcomings, not its highpoints. I’ve been reading about some of those shortcomings, and they are not insignificant. Canada is a standout player when it comes to environmental destruction, and in the colonial brutality that still feeds that destruction.
The theme of our upcoming conference is the rule of law, its uses, its abuses, and its potential as a local and global tool. I’ve just read Tamara Starblanket’s Suffer the Little Children: Genocide, Indigenous Nations, and the Canadian State. This is a lawyer’s view of the Canadian history and present practice of forcibly removing children from families. While the U.S. removal of immigrant children from their families has been in the news of late, it’s not been newly invented. Both settler-colonist Canada and Nazi Germany learned from the U.S. practice of removing Indigenous children from their families in order to “educate” them into another culture.
A major focus for Starblanket is the legal and linguistic case for applying the term “genocide” and the crime of genocide to the forcible removal of Indigenous children in Canada and their placement in so-called residential schools. It ought to be no mystery that kidnapping is evil and criminal, just as it ought to be no mystery that murder is evil and criminal. But “genocide” is something different from those crimes — different not in quantity or grandeur, but in type. Genocide is an act “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Such an act can involve murder or kidnapping or both or neither. Such an act can “physically” harm no one. It can be anyone, or more than one, of these five things:
- (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.
The actions in item “e” can transfer children to a materially better condition where they are educated in a culture that views itself as dramatically superior, and yet genocide has been clearly committed. That is a clear matter of international law. It is not a claim that all acts of genocide are equally evil, that all victims are equally tragic, that all types of genocide can best be prevented in the same way, or any other such unstated claim.
But the idea of removing children to a materially better condition is a theoretical one irrelevant to the Canadian context, at least when viewed as a whole. The Indigenous children removed from their families in Canada were forced into “schools” where over 40% and likely over 50% of them quickly died, from disease, starvation, torture, rape, suicide, and physical and mental abuse. Of those forced into Dachau by the Nazis, 36% died, Buchenwald 19%, Mauthausen 58%. The Canadian “schools” employed a list of torture techniques that could make a CIA agent drool with envy.
A survivor, Emily Rice, is quoted by Starblanket:
“I clung to Rose until Father Jackson wrenched her out of my arms. I searched all over the boat for Rose. Finally, I climbed up to the wheel house and opened the door and there was Father Jackson, on top of my sister. My sister’s dress was pulled up and his pants were down. I was too little to know about sex; but I now know he was raping her. He cursed and came after me, picked up his big black Bible and slapped me across the face and on top of the head. I started crying hysterically and he threw me out onto the deck. When we got to Kuper Island, my sister and I were separated. They wouldn’t let me comfort her. Even today, all my sisters are strangers to me.”
Numerous top Canadian officials over the years stated clearly that the intention of the child-removal program was to eliminated Indigenous cultures. Placing their words and Heinrich Himmler’s words about a similar Nazi program side-by-side finds them virtually interchangeable. In the words of various Canadians, the intent was to utterly remove “the Indian problem.” I suspect, though Starblanket doesn’t discuss it, that part of why U.S., as well as Canadian genocidists, perceived an “Indian problem” was that it was impossible to persuade Indigenous adults to adopt the settler-colonist culture, while numerous settlers happily adopted the Indigenous culture and refused to give it up. In other words, fierce methods were needed to destroy cultures precisely because of their desirability — making the acts of crimes against humanity, and not-incidentally against the rest of the natural environment.
Proving the crime of genocide does not require the statement of intent, but in this case, as in Nazi Germany, as in today’s Palestine, and as in most if not all cases, there is no shortage of expressions of genocidal intent.
There is also no shortage of genocidal results. Indigenous cultures of Canada were devastated — in no small part because the children subjected to the “schooling” who survived it lacked parenting skills, as well as cultural and linguistic knowledge — in addition to being traumatized, dehumanized, and demonized in their own eyes.
When the treaty to ban genocide was being drafted in 1947, at the same time that Nazis were still being put on trial, and while U.S. government scientists were experimenting on Guatemalans with syphilis, Canadian government “educators” were performing “nutritional experiments” on Indigenous children — that is to say: starving them to death. The original draft of the new law included the crime of cultural genocide. While this was stripped out at the urging of Canada and the United States, it remained in the form of item “e” above. Canada ratified the treaty nonetheless, and despite having threatened to add reservations to its ratification, it did no such thing. But Canada enacted into its domestic law only items “a” and “c” — simply omitting “b,” “d,” and “e” in the list above, despite the legal obligation to include them. Even the United States has included what Canada omitted.
Thus, when Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2008 apologized for Canada’s crimes, he didn’t indicate any awareness that they were crimes, much less that they were the crime widely understood to be the greatest of all: “genocide.” (At Nuremberg, of course, the chief prosecutor characterized something else as the greatest international crime: war.) In fact, while Harper’s apology certainly looks like a positive step in the right direction, it also reads a little like a Ken Burns Vietnam documentary where “mistakes” flow from “good intentions.” Harper says that children were tortured and killed “partly in order to meet [Canada’s] obligation to educate Aboriginal children.”
Starblanket notes that Indigenous children today are frequently forcibly removed to provincial child “welfare” systems, and that as recently as 2014 (six years after the apology) St. Anne’s School in Ontario was torturing children with electric chairs.
Of course, in the United States, Canada, and other countries, non-Indigenous children are sometimes removed from families believed to be abusive, and sometimes these families are abusive indeed. But one wonders whether the tendency to remove children rather than to aid families in caringly keeping them originated in practices directed against Indigenous peoples, just as every “security” technique I’m now watching in downtown Charlottesville was first justified for use against foreign “enemies.”
Much of the Canadian crime of genocide predates the Genocide Convention, although consisting of numerous other recognized crimes then extant. Current continuations of Canadian genocide may not in all instances any longer constitute, in isolation, genocide. But that genocide is a major element in the story of Canada, as in the story of the United States, as in the culture of Europe and most of its offshoots, there should be no doubt. Bringing ourselves to say the word is not the most important thing we can do about it. But our reluctance to say the word is indicative of the primary problem at the root of it.
I would offer Starblanket the friendly amendment of dropping her proposed use of the term “brainwashing” because of its origins in the CIA-driven propaganda used to claim that U.S. pilots engaged in biological warfare in Korea were telling lies magically implanted in their minds. And I would urge the merging of honest Indigenous understandings of genocide with honest anti-imperialist understandings of war, with the combination opposed to the academic view of genocide as something non-Westerners do, and of war as something noble Westerners use to combat genocide. The fact is that war and genocide are Siamese twins. The slaughters that coated North America with blood were both genocides and wars, and the application of either term to them meets similar resistance. The slaughter of Iraqis by Westerners in recent years has been both war and genocide, and recognizing and understanding both is part of the solution. It is helpful to the antiwar cause when Indigenous North Americans apply their understanding to global peace.
The Kellogg-Briand Pact, which first clearly banned war globally in 1928, as documented in The Internationalists, largely put an end to the acceptability of new wars of conquest. The rule of global law that may be needed for human survival will draw on the wisdom of Indigenous, not colonial, precedents, and will respect local rights in Canada as in Nicaragua, in Crimea as in Kosovo. The changes in law and culture that are most needed are those that will address root causes of suffering and prevent violence and force. But the “forward-looking” lawlessness advocated by Barack Obama and even Andrés Manuel López Obrador must be replaced with non-vengeful accountability equally applied to all.
That means law for the powerful as for the weak. That means kidnapping is kidnapping even when in line with colonial views. Murder is murder even when committed by a drone or when part of a war. Torture and land-theft are torture and land-theft even when committed on large scales. Prison camps are prison camps when on actual U.S. military bases as when in Hollywood movies set in Nazi Germany. Canadian horrors are horrific even when the Prime Minister is a handsome liberal bowing and scraping to the same oil companies and NATO warmongers.
Canada should seek out the best in its history. There are rich veins there too. Canada should lead by example, add restitution to an apology, and make peace at home rather than exporting violence in the name of its supposed “responsibility to protect.” Protect us from such protectors!