It’s not “breaking news” anymore, but there was an announcement last week of the discovery of mass graves of First Nations children who died at residential schools. It was coupled with an announcement of an independent inquiry called The International Human Rights Tribunal Into Genocide in Canada.
When we talk about the history of white-native relations in Canada (which we rarely do at all), mainstream Canadians have two pictures in their heads of the nature of the wrongs done to aboriginal peoples – the first is ancient history, the smallpox-infested blankets and the wars and the actual killing that the original European settlers perpetrated centuries ago. And that doesn’t really matter, because it was so long ago, and can’t we just forget already? Or, occasionally, we’ll talk about residential schools, in existence until the 1960s all over Canada, and into the 1970s in some places. If we’re talking about that, we’ll talk about sexual abuse, about lawsuits against the churches and government and what the settlements should be, about the death of languages and culture and the violence done in order to ensure assimilation. All of that is bad enough, and we’ll occasionally start to use words like “genocide” to describe the ways all of those actions were designed to erase peoples, history, difference, which will be questioned, because, after all, we’re not talking about actual murder.
Except that we are. We’re talking about recent murder, the murder of children whose families are still alive. We’re talking about children. Mainstream Canadians cannot handle the word “genocide”; there is a constant aversion to recognizing what we’re really talking about here. Like it doesn’t count because it’s continued over 500 years instead of being carried out in one sharp, punctuated burst of violence. As if the fact that we, white European settlers, never really sat down and wrote a manifesto that included the desire to exterminate all aboriginal peoples implies that there’s something questionable about the use of the term “genocide”. We’re quiet, calm, rational Canadians – we don’t talk about hate, so we can’t have hate crimes.
With respect to residential schools, people are still making the argument that “folks back then didn’t really know any better” – because when we’re talking about “folks”, we gloss right over having to think about the many, many people who actually did the violence, or the worst of it. We end up talking about how it’s somehow understandable for “folks” to have set policies that take children from their parents, that include the official goal of getting them to forget their native languages (including the use of beatings and threats to enforce that regulation) and learn proper, Christian teachings. They didn’t know any better at the time.
What we’re essentially saying, when we say that, is that “they” didn’t know these children and their parents were people. Not for real. And if we won’t use the word genocide, then we’re still not admitting that, and current events, as per usual, get filtered through a distorted, rosy, sugary-sweet maple-syrup coloured lens.