Right-wing ranter Ezra Levant is outraged about the history of Canadian genocide against indigenous peoples. Specifically, he’s outraged that anyone would dare call it a genocide.
When Bernie Farber, former head of the Canadian Jewish Congress, used the term Levant went on the attack, tweeting: “@berniefarber says Canada committed genocide against Indians. He’s profaning the Holocaust for a client.” Farber does work as an economic advisor with some First Nations groups. But anyone acquainted with the facts–the reduction on the indigenous population of North and South America from an estimated 10 to 18 million at the time of contact to far less than half a million by the end of the 19th century–would have a hard time finding a more accurate term.
In the words of David E. Stannard, a historian at the University of Hawaii, First Nations people suffered the “worst human holocaust the world had ever witnessed, roaring across two continents non-stop for four centuries and consuming the lives of countless tens of millions of people.”
In school I was taught that despite some clashes and problems, First Nations people were treated far better in Canada than in the USA. Stephen Harper upped the denial ante in 2009 when he told a press conference at the G20 summit: “We also have no history of colonialism. So we have all of the things that many people admire about the great powers but none of the things that threaten or bother them.”
The Tories rewrote the Discover Canada handbook for prospective new Canadians supporting this sanitized and fictitious version of history: “The arrival of European traders, missionaries, soldiers and colonists changed the native way of life forever. Large numbers of Aboriginals died of European diseases to which they lacked immunity. However, Aboriginals and Europeans formed strong economic, religious and military bonds in the first 200 years of coexistence which laid the foundations of Canada.”
This doesn’t even qualify as a caricature of real history. Gone is the extinction of the Beothuk people, through disease, yes, but also through systematic violence from settlers and trappers. Gone is the systematic betrayal of First Nations allies, the destruction of their cultures and theft of their lands. Gone is the Riel rebellion, the fight for a homeland for First Nations and Metis peoples.
And most notably, gone is any mention of the primary instrument of genocide against First Nations: the Residential School system. Government records recently obtained by the Residential School Truth and Reconciliation Commission have revealed a story of racist experiments that cut the legs out from beneath the Harper version of history.
From 1942 to 1952, the Canadian government deliberately starved thousands of First Nation children in experiments designed to study the effects of malnourishment.
In 2008 Stephen Harper “apologized” for the shameful history of the Residential Schools. Beginning in 1876, 150,000 First Nation, Metis and Inuit children were removed from their homes and families and institutionalized in an effort of forced assimilation. Part of Harper’s apology was a promise to provide all the records in government archives dealing with that history to the Commission.
For five years the federal government dragged its feet and withheld the majority of its documents. In January of 2013 the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was forced to take the government to court, where the judge ordered them to hand over more of the records.
For its part, the federal Aboriginal Affairs ministry contends the Truth and Reconciliation Commission had documentation on the Residential School experiments as early as 2010. Newly minted Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt brushed aside calls for an official apology. He insisted Harper’s 2008 apology covered all crimes.
In the experiments First Nations people, mostly children in Residential schools scattered across the country, were deliberately malnourished to study the effects of vitamin deficiency. According to Ian Mosby, the University of Guelph researcher who pieced together the story by examining the records: “In the 1940s, there were a lot of questions about what are human requirements for vitamins. Malnourished aboriginal people became viewed as possible means of testing these theories.” In addition, children were denied dental health services to study the effects of gum disease.
The use of First Nations children as guinea pigs recalls experiments in Nazi concentration camps, and the Tuskegee experiments in the US. Beginning in 1932, researchers from the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama deliberately withheld treatment from more than 300 Black men suffering from venereal disease. They wanted to study the long-term effects of the disease. The men were deceived about the nature of the study they were part of. The experiment continued until a whistleblower went to the press in 1972.
Deliberately withholding treatment is a violation of the most basic medical ethics. The choice of Black men in Alabama and First Nations children in Canada as laboratory rats was not accidental. It was the fruit of deep-seated institutionalized racism in both countries.
That racism has taken a new form but it hasn’t gone away. It is there in the Harper government’s attack on First Nations sovereignty; in the "slow industrial genocide" of the tar sands; in the refusal to provide justice for missing and murdered aboriginal women; in the deliberate underfunding of education and welfare services on reserves; in cutbacks and layoffs in frontline government staff; in the callous and purely colonialist response to the central demand of the Idle No More movement, for direct and respectful nation-to-nation dialogue.
The Residential Schools–and the horrifying experiments they concealed–are not ancient history. They were part of a deliberate campaign to wipe out First Nation cultures and languages. This cultural genocide followed in the shameful footsteps of actual genocide through disease, violence and neglect.
How many more horrors are yet to be revealed in the hundreds of thousands of documents the government has not yet made available? One thing is certain: Harper’s phony apology and public denial of colonialism as the very core of Canadian history is the modern face of genocide.