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The revelation of Canada’s cultural genocide against native people should shake the world into a historical reckoning that extends beyond empty apologies

  • 751 unmarked graves of indigenous Canadians were uncovered weeks after another mass grave was found.
  • The shocking news should jolt not just Canada, but the entire global community into reckoning with their own histories of cultural genocide.
  • From Australia to China and a number of nations in between, policy and not apologies are what marginalized communities need to heal.
  • Parisa Hashempour is a freelance journalist and International Studies lecturer living in the Netherlands.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

Weeks after a mass grave of 215 children was uncovered at the site of a residential school in British Columbia, 751 unmarked graves were found beside another residential school in Saskatchewan, home to the indigenous Cowessess First Nation.

The schools, which forcibly removed more than 150,000 indigenous children from their families in all but three Canadian territories over the course of 100 years, are responsible for the deaths of more than 3000 children and the abuse of many more. Residential schools were a horrific act of cultural genocide — the systematic destruction of the culture of a national, ethnic, or religious group — on the part of the church and the Canadian governments. 

In the wake of the news, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau described the graves as “a shameful reminder of the systemic racism, discrimination, and injustice that Indigenous peoples have faced.” His words, which have been described by indigenous activists as all talk and little action, should prompt not just Canada but a whole host of modern nation-states across the globe to reckon with their unaddressed histories of cultural genocide.

From Australia to China and a whole number of nations in between, the recent reports should signal for many in the global community that it is time to look inwards and properly reckon with both their own histories and present violations of cultural genocide. 

Residential schools in Canada and the US 

Cultural genocide has historically been used to eradicate the identity of marginalized groups in order to eliminate their space in a place’s history. Beginning in the 1870s, authorities in Canada took away young indigenous children and placed them in residential schools, with an aim to educate and assimilate children into Euro-Canadian society. Schools forbade children from speaking their native languages, even in letters home to their parents. They were separated from siblings, prevented from practicing traditional faiths, stripped of their traditional clothes, long hair was cut off and in many cases children were given new, Christian names. 

In 2015, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission declared, “These measures were part of a coherent policy to eliminate Aboriginal people as distinct peoples and to assimilate them into the Canadian mainstream against their will.” One Kamloops school survivor, Julianna Alexander, told the commission “To recover, it took me 14 years after I left. I became an addict and an alcoholic.” The emotional, physical, and sexual abuse many suffered had devastating personal consequences, and the denigration and outright attack on cultural practices had a pernicious, long-lasting effect on the survival of those customs too. 

However, these schools were not unique to Canada. “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man,” is a quote made famous by Captain Richard H. Pratt, the founder of the predecessor to the residential schools both north and south of the Canadian border: the US Training and Industrial school in Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania. The federal government sent thousands of Native Americans to study at boarding schools throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, and subjected children to much the same treatment as was experienced further north. 

Cultural genocide on a global scale 

The image evoked by the residential school graves sent shockwaves around the world and was particularly triggering for indigenous communities still reeling from their own experiences of marginalization and oppression. Aboriginal Australian Arrernte Elder, William Pengarte Tilmouth, wrote for The Guardian: “The experiences in Canada are echoed here in Australia. Until there is truth-telling in Australia about the colonisation process across the whole of the continent, the process of reconciliation remains superficial.”

As in North America, the lasting cultural implications of colonization are still being felt there today. Of more than 250 known indigenous Australian languages, only around 140 of those are still spoken, with 110 of that number critically endangered. This is credited to the theft of the ‘Lost Generation’ of Australians, children who were stolen from their aboriginal families and integrated into white Australian homes up until the 1970s. In New Zealand too, indigenous people have suffered land alienation, mass settler immigration, and cultural marginalization. However, it is not just former English colonies that have histories of cultural genocide to reckon with. 

In Sweden, the indigenous Sami people are lobbying their government for a truth and reconciliation process to expose human rights violations, all while logging practices could be set to see 30% of their community destroyed. On the international stage, China hits daily headlines on accusations of genocide amidst the ongoing persecution of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang. 

Claiming Uighurs are a terror threat, more than one million Uighurs are estimated to have been detained in camps since 2016 in a situation that is said to be characterized by forced labor, sexual and physical abuse, ‘re-education’, and intensive surveillance. Internal documents from the Kunes county justice system from 2017 and 2018, provided to the BBC, described the camp’s intentions as “washing brains, cleansing hearts, strengthening righteousness and eliminating evil”  — it’s clear that the world has far from learned its lesson. 

Action over words 

In 2008 and 2009, Australia, Canada, and the US all delivered formal apologies. However, with Australian native languages on the way to extinction, Canada’s Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls Report as relevant today as it was when it was written two years ago, and more than one in three Native American children recorded as living in poverty, words don’t go far enough. Where apologies have been made, they have often felt anticlimactic. Take Barack Obama’s 2009 statement, silently signed and pushed through with little fanfare, it declares, “Nothing in this section … authorizes or supports any claim against the United States; or serves as a settlement of any claim against the United States.” 

This is quite different from the approach taken in Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel emphasizes the importance of keeping alive the memory of the Holocaust. Restitutions were paid and commemoration continues through monuments, art, and culture. The recent rise of the far-right in the country has sounded alarm bells for many, but despite this, a 2020 report by the DW found that more than half of all those surveyed agree with the amount of attention paid to the crimes of Germany’s past. This approach may not fit for all countries, but the key is to choose policies over performance. 

In New Zealand in 1982, the Māori language was at risk of dying out, to combat this, grandparents offered to look after children in daycare centers for language immersion. By 1998 there were more than 600 of these daycare schools, showing there are tangible ways that governments can assist marginalized communities in rebuilding as they heal from the wounds of colonization. Indigenous children are overrepresented in Canada’s social care system, but changes to welfare and public health can help work to fix this.

The settler electorate in post-colonial nations should join their indigenous neighbors in demanding accountability and action from governments, the international community must place pressure on one another to address the issue of cultural genocide within their countries and implement policies that work to protect all marginalized communities, cultures, and languages.

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