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Confronting genocide in Canada

A man speaks into a podium microphone.

Photo: CMHR, John Woods

News release details

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights recognizes that the colonial experience in Canada, from first contact to the present, constitutes genocide against Indigenous peoples. The Indian residential school system was one key component of this genocide.

Methods of perpetuating genocide include physical, biological and cultural means – all of which can be used to destroy a group of people. Canada’s policies aimed at assimilating Indigenous people included outlawing languages, cultural practices and political traditions and forcibly removing children from families. These were deliberate attempts to erase a distinct group of people by destroying the essential foundations of their way of life.

On April 26, 2018, CMHR President and CEO John Young gave the keynote address at the Atamiskakewak National Gathering in Moose Jaw, speaking about how Indigenous and non-Indigenous people can move forward together on the journey of reconciliation. Excerpts from his remarks, edited for Web publication, are posted below.

As one of the first major gatherings since the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) final report, with its 94 calls to action, this felt like an appropriate time for us, as a museum, to look back reflectively on some of the progress and the setbacks we’ve made and to look forward to what might come next.

The theme of this gathering, “Shaking hands in greeting with each other,” reminds me of some words of wisdom from Senator Murray Sinclair (at the time Justice Sinclair), while he was leading the work of the TRC. His messages struck a chord and I think about them often in many of the discussions I find myself involved in. 

Senator Sinclair said that it’s hard for two people to talk if they are standing facing different directions and each shouting at the other. In order to talk, people need to walk together, he said. Sometimes you need to extend a hand and walk with someone over the same path you may already have covered … so that you can start your journey together.

This is a powerful metaphor for the path of reconciliation we are all walking together as people in Canada.

For many of you here today, it may sometimes feel like the walk has been pretty lonely, one that you have been on for a long time, waiting for the rest of us to catch up. I am, however, optimistic that we are starting to catch up, and I’ll tell you a bit about how I think our museum is striving to contribute to reconciliation. 

Our mandate is to enhance the public’s understanding of human rights, to promote respect for others, and to encourage reflection and dialogue.

At the heart of our museum’s experience are stories. Our visitors encounter stories of tragedy and despair, of celebration and achievement, of hope and resilience. Stories of those working to build reconciliation. And the stories that make reconciliation necessary. 

We can’t talk about reconciliation unless we are grounded in truth. Truth comes first. We believe that the Indian residential school system was genocide.

We also believe the policies and practices of colonization, from which the residential school system flowed, were genocide, and we state this clearly and unequivocally in our exhibition Rights of Passage, which looks at Canada’s human rights history in the 150 years since Confederation. (Note: this exhibition ran at the CMHR from late 2017 to early 2019.)

We also recognize that this is a truth that has only very recently begun to be discussed in classrooms and churches, in meeting rooms and coffee shops. The work of the TRC was instrumental in bringing this conversation forward.

We acknowledge that we have only just begun this important dialogue. We also acknowledge that there are many in Canada who aren’t there yet. For them, the suggestion that there was a genocide right here in Canada – one planned and implemented through different policies and practices – is contrary to everything they hold dear as Canadians.

On the international stage, Canada has a very positive image. We are the country that invented the concept of peacekeeping. We are a country that accepts refugees. We are a country that has enshrined human rights in our constitution. Many of us are rightly proud of Canada’s achievements. But we also need to acknowledge our wrongs; otherwise our collective memory isn’t complete. We must also look at the shadowy corners of our past and examine them in the harsh light of day.

Make no mistake: some of Canada’s history is dark. And perhaps there is no darker chapter in our past than that of the Indian residential school system. 

One of the more common responses I hear from visitors to our galleries related to residential schools is “they didn’t teach this when I was in school…” Awareness of these stories leads to recognition of genocide here in Canada. This is part of a national journey from denial to minimization to recognition, a necessary journey that can encourage and facilitate restoration and reconciliation.

The work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to shine a light on this period in our shared history and bring it into the open cannot be underestimated. How many thousands of Canadians first heard the stories of children stolen from their families and communities, the stories of abuse and neglect and death, through the work of the TRC?

The TRC issued 94 calls to action in its final report. These include specific calls to action for museums, archives and cultural communities, including the call to mark the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation through the lens of contributing to reconciliation. 

This isn’t something we’ve taken lightly as a museum. Indeed, on the eve of the tabling of the TRC final report, in December 2015, we opened a very special exhibition at the Museum, one which had a profound impact on our visitors and all of us who work there.

The Witness Blanket, an exhibition about Indian residential schools, is a large-scale art installation made from pieces of history – hundreds of items reclaimed from residential schools, churches, government buildings and other cultural structures from across Canada. More than 800 items from 77 communities were gathered for this artwork, inspired by a woven blanket. They include letters, photos, stories, books, clothing, art and fragments of building. Master carver Carey Newman was inspired to create the Witness Blanket by his father Victor Newman’s residential school experience. Hosting the Witness Blanket and working with Carey was one of the first ways we responded as a museum to the calls to action. Building on its success, we began to look for new ways to engage with partners.

First and foremost, we looked to the community around us, to Elders and leaders, for opportunities to work together and for opportunities to listen and learn. From one of the first of these meetings – at a Tim Hortons about 10 minutes away from the Museum, I heard that some of the overtures the Museum was making were seen as tokenistic or formulaic – tick this box to meet your reconciliation quota. You know what I mean. So, with support from leaders within the Museum, and our advisory councils and working groups, we looked at ways we could contribute to reconciliation that were both formal and informal and began putting them into practice.

I know that we are in the very early stages. I know that we will surely take missteps on our path. But I also know that this is a journey we are committed to – and one that we would welcome your feedback on. I hope that we can continue to walk along this path together.

Thank you. Merci. Miigwetch.

Media contacts

Maureen Fitzhenry