What happened to Indigenous Peoples in Canada was nothing short of “cultural genocide,” Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin said in a recent speech.
She may be the highest-ranking federal official ever to use the term, according to The Globe and Mail.
“The most glaring blemish on the Canadian historic record relates to our treatment of the First Nations that lived here at the time of colonization,” McLachlin said in the annual Pluralism Lecture of the Global Centre for Pluralism. “An initial period of cooperative inter-reliance grounded in norms of equality and mutual dependence, was supplanted in the nineteenth century by the ethos of exclusion and cultural annihilation. Early laws forbade treaty Indians from leaving allocated reservations. Starvation and disease were rampant. Indians were denied the right to vote. Religious and social traditions, like the Potlach and the Sun Dance, were outlawed. Children were taken from their parents and sent away to residential schools, where they were forbidden to speak their native languages, forced to wear white-man’s clothing, forced to observe Christian religious practices, and not infrequently subjected to sexual abuse.”
The well-known objective, she noted, was to "take the Indian out of the child" and eradicate what came to be known as the “Indian problem.”
“ ‘Indianness’ was not to be tolerated; rather it must be eliminated,” McLachlin said of the prevailing attitude during those times. “In the buzzword of the day, assimilation; in the language of the 21st century, cultural genocide.”
Now, she said, Canada understands that assimilation was wrong and that the only way forward is through tolerance, which she noted is still in short supply.
“The legacy of intolerance lives on in the lives of First Nation people and their children—a legacy of too much poverty, too little education, and over-representation of aboriginal people in our courts,” she said.
The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) released a statement immediately in support of McLachlin’s words.
“We fully agree with the Chief Justice’s statement that Canada’s treatment of our people is cultural genocide,” said AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde in a statement. “The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples affirms our right to not be subjected to forced assimilation or destruction of our culture—in essence, cultural genocide. The fact that the highest justice of Canada’s highest court is affirming this reality is tremendously powerful. Madam Chief Justice McLachlin’s understanding and recognition serve as a call to action for everyone in this country, including governments. It must inform the approach to policy making, law making and reconciliation that is required to move us all forward into a new Canada where First Nations children have the same opportunities as every other child in this land and where our rights, responsibilities and promises to one another are honored and respected.”
McLachlin spoke just a few days before the wrapup of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission at an event sponsored by The Globe and Mail.