Editorial: If the term genocide fits, wear it and flush its legacy

The nation is reeling from the final report of the national inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Canada, particularly the use of the term genocide when applied to our nation and its relationship with the First Nations. The pushback against the term “cultural genocide” referenced by Justice Murray Sinclair in the previous Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report was strong, but the lack of the “cultural” qualifier has cut deep. How could anyone say such a thing about our nation? That is the kind of label that is applied to the Nazis and the holocaust, to the depredations of Stalin and the Ukraine, the fate of the Armenians during the creation of modern Turkey. In fact, our reaction is much like that of Turkey—outrage and denial.

But that reaction is to ignore history and the less than pristine backstory that underlies our nation building. Most of us want to believe the narrative that the residential school system was put in place in a somewhat misguided attempt to do good. We want to believe that all of that unfortunate business is behind us and not the kind of thing that we, as modern and enlightened Canadians, would engage in.

We could tell that to the Beothuk, if there were any left alive following the bounty placed on their heads by the colonial government of the day. We could tell that to the countless men, women and children who died waiting for the promised rations and supplies in the latter part of the 19th and early 20th centuries that never arrived. Closer to home, the admonition of the government to place First Nation communities on lands that were not economically viable following the (also somewhat questionable) treaties that opened the Island to homesteading was a policy aimed at the destruction of those communities and their peoples.

Add to that the underhanded dealings of Indian agents and those responsible for the distribution of fishing licences underpinning the story of the Manitoulin Incident and you have a very unsavoury story indeed—taking a more charitable perspective.

So that was all in the past—or is it?

Canada as a nation has a lot of things hidden in its historical closet that we would rather just went away, but until we face up to that past, the vestiges of those skeletons will remain to infest our systems and culture. There will be a lot of work ahead, difficult work, if we are to root out those vestiges and expose them to the light of day so we can deal with them in a true spirit of reconciliation that will allow us to rebuild the trust of those nations upon whose ancestors we owe our very existence (see the Battle of the Thames).

Currently, the federal government is attempting to do just that. The First Nations Land Management Act is part of a process aimed at removing First Nations from the yoke of the colonial era Indian Act and to restore the sovereignty that was stolen from those nations through more than a century of double-dealing cloaked within a thin mantle of benevolent paternalism.

We should react with little surprise that many citizens of the First Nations are greeting the FNLMA with alarm. For the Anishinaabe, those nine words “I’m from the government and here to help you” has a very sinister provenance and assurances from the government that they mean only the best has been heard far too often before with disastrous consequences.

The leadership of the First Nations have an uphill battle ahead of them and, should they decide in the end not to trust Canada, who can blame them?

But there is strong evidence that the current federal government is sincere in its efforts to return the sovereignty once stolen from the First Nations and it is in The Expositor’s firm belief that the restoration of sovereignty is the only way forward that will resolve those issues originally created by our colonial past.

For more than 200 years successive governments have been doing what they believe (claim?) is in the best interests of the First Nations, and it is long past time that responsibility is turned over to those who are best equipped to chart a course forward for their communities—the people themselves.

That is not to say that the Anishinaabe should blindly accept government claims as to what the wording in the FNLMA and other legislation aimed at the restoration of sovereignty means—history shows that way lies madness and despair. But there are accomplished and learned Anishnaabe legal experts, the redoubtable Martin Bayer springs to mind as one of many, who can see their way through any wool that bureaucrats might seek to pull over their eyes and help chart a safe course forward.

At the end of the day it will be up to the communities themselves to decide whether they wish to remain wards nestled under the “protection” of the colonial Indian Act or to reassert their own sovereignty and move forward into the 21st Century as masters of their own destiny. 

Nations we suggest are built upon vision and determination, not fear.

As for Canada and that question of genocide, we should not shirk from those responsibilities placed upon our nation by the actions of our forbearers. We must make every effort to divest ourselves of a systemic racism so embedded in our society, legal and governmental systems that we are unable to recognize it when we see it. As a nation we can only do that by recognizing that the term genocide is a shoe that fits. We have come a long way but we must endeavour to continue to grow as a nation until it no longer fits. Reconciliation must be more than fine words framed on a wall in Ottawa.