With both Pope Francis and the Canadian Parliament using the term “genocide” to describe Canada’s treatment of its Indigenous people, it is not surprising that many people believe it is an accurate descriptive term. However, in all established interpretations of the term “genocide,” an intent to eradicate a particular group of people must be shown.1 Was this intent shown by the Canadian Government? Despite the Parliamentary declaration, a reasonable interpretation of the facts suggests that the answer is a firm “no”.
The immediate thoughts of many would likely turn to the NTRC report of 3201 students dying2 or to the many media reports of the “remains of 215 children found at former B.C. residential school”3 (CBC, May 27, 2021) that sparked a summer of burning churches. However, the informational context and nuance is non-existent in public discourse, leading to these numbers being either misinterpreted or accepted unquestioningly.
For example, 2434 students are reported to have died between 1867-1939. These were the peak years of tuberculosis and included the Spanish Flu epidemic, both of which were extremely deadly for any Indigenous person, young or old, who caught them as there was little natural immunity to Old World diseases. Once a proper treatment for tuberculosis was invented, deaths in the schools dropped precipitously.4
The reported “remains of 215 children” is, in fact, ground penetrating radar data that shows 215 “disturbances” in the soil, as ground penetrating radar is not capable of showing the details required to make definitive statements.5 Somewhat shockingly, not a single body has been confirmed to be in the Kamloops Residential School orchard6, nor have there been any investigations launched by police into school staff – some of whom are still alive.7
From these points spring a question: what does the available information actually show?
In fact, much of the existing evidence shows that the intent of the Canadian government and most of those who worked in the schools was not to destroy Indigenous peoples physically but to keep them from starvation and to keep them safe from other threats posed by a growing population of non-Indigenous people.8
As today, education was seen to be the best way to ensure the survival and prosperity of Indigenous people. The medical care9 10 that many Residential School students received, as well as the nutritious meals that were provided in many schools11, show no intention of governments to exterminate Indigenous people. On the contrary, both schools and hospitals to serve Indigenous communities were built on or near many reserves.12 13
Finally, the Indigenous population numbers simply do not back up an argument for an attempted eradication. Early in the 20th century, during the same period as the residential school program, the indigenous population, which had dipped below 100,000, began its long rise to a currently estimated population of 1.8 million (2021 census).14
It is possible to argue that efforts were misguided, but the claim that residential schools are a tool of genocide are at best terribly misinformed, and at worst a cynical attempt to cause division and pain in Indigenous communities for profit.