Genocide and Indigenous Peoples in Canada

Genocide is the intentional destruction of a particular group through killing, serious physical or mental harm, preventing births and/or forcibly transferring children to another group. The term has been applied to the experiences of Indigenous peoples in Canada, particularly in the final reports of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (see also Residential Schools) and the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls inquiry.

Genocide is the intentional destruction of a particular group through killing, serious physical or mental harm, preventing births and/or forcibly transferring children to another group. The term has been applied to the experiences of Indigenous peoples in Canada, particularly in the final reports of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (see also Residential Schools) and the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls inquiry.


Genocide and Indigenous Peoples in Canada

Protestors in Toronto, Ontario (2020), bringing attention to the following social movements and issues: genocide and Indigenous peoples, Idle No More, Black Lives Matter and missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

(courtesy Jason Hargrove/ Flickr cc by 2.0)

Defining Genocide

In 1944, Polish jurist Raphäel Lemkin coined the term genocide. The term combines the Greek genos (race or tribe) with the Latin cide (killing). Genocide is therefore defined as the intentional annihilation of a given group based on their shared identity. This identity is often based on nationality or ethnicity, but it can also include race or religious affiliation. Lemkin campaigned for many years for an international treaty to prohibit genocide. Finally, the UN Genocide Convention — a treaty ratified by the UN General Assembly — was implemented in 1948. Lemkin’s definition of the term was adopted by the UN.

Cultural Genocide

Acknowledged by Raphäel Lemkin in 1944, cultural genocide is a concept that builds on, and is related to, understandings of genocide. Cultural genocide is the intentional destruction of a culture. However, it does not necessarily involve killing or violence against members of the group in question. For example, cultural genocide can include the eradication of cultural activities, artifacts, language and traditions.

Due to the objections of various nations, the 1948 UN Genocide Convention does not use the term cultural genocide, nor does the 1994 UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Within Canada, however, Indigenous peoples and some scholars have argued that programs and policies of colonization, such as residential schools were intent on destroying Indigenous peoples in Canada as a distinct group and were therefore acts of cultural genocide.

Residential Schools, the TRC and Cultural Genocide

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) was officially launched in 2008 as part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA). In 2015, the TRC released its final report, documenting the experiences, often tragic, of at least 150,000 residential school students in Canada.

The TRC labelled the residential school system as a case of cultural genocide. The final report defined cultural genocide as the “destruction of those structures and practices that allow the group to continue as a group.” It stated that residential schools “were part of a coherent policy to eliminate Aboriginal people as distinct peoples and to assimilate them into the Canadian mainstream against their will.”

The TRC also argued that the Sixties Scoop — the large-scale removal of over 20,000 Indigenous children in Canada — was a form of cultural genocide. The report noted that the closure of residential schools led to “a significant increase in the number of children being taken into care by child-welfare agencies.” Thousands of Indigenous children across the country were forcibly removed from their birth homes. In 1985, Justice Edwin Kimelman’s report on Indigenous peoples and child welfare policies, No Quiet Place, also argued that “cultural genocide has been taking place in a systematic, routine manner.”

The TRC’s final report outlined 94 calls to action to work toward reconciliation. The report launched a discussion in Canada about Indigenous peoples and cultural genocide. While some critics disliked or were not comfortable using the term, many Canadians agreed that the residential school system was destructive. Others argued that the TRC insufficiently represented the suffering of Indigenous peoples in Canada. As journalist Jesse Staniforth argued in the Toronto Star (2015), “The word ‘cultural’ seems to suggest that the [residential school] system was designed to destroy cultures but not people, a fact far from the reality of Residential Schools.”

MMIWG Inquiry and Genocide

On 8 December 2015, the Government of Canada announced plans for the launch of an independent national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG). Four years later, in 2019, the MMIWG inquiry released a 1,200-page document detailing its findings, including 231 recommendations.

The inquiry used the term genocide to characterize the pattern of violence against Indigenous women and girls in Canada (as well as Indigenous peoples, in general) and the federal government’s response to these systematic human rights violations. According to the MMIWG inquiry, the primary reason for the higher rates of violence against Indigenous peoples in Canada is the “persistent and deliberate human and Indigenous rights violations and abuses.” The final report argued that various colonial laws, policies and programs, such as the Indian Act and the child welfare system, are intent on “destroy[ing] Indigenous Peoples.” Chief commissioner of the inquiry, Marion Buller said of the report, “[it] is about deliberate race, identity and gender-based genocide.”

On 4 June 2019, while speaking to a crowd in Vancouver, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recognized the inquiry’s conclusions, saying: “we accept the findings of the commissioners that it was genocide.” While many in Canada recognize the atrocities against Indigenous peoples, use of the term genocide generated some backlash among those who did not believe the term was appropriate or warranted. However, others argue that use of the term is important, and that downplaying the inquiry’s findings overlooks and undervalues the lived experiences of Indigenous peoples in Canada. The inquiry’s use of “genocide” influenced important changes. Notably, in 2018, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights decided to change its description of the atrocities committed against Indigenous peoples in Canada from “cultural genocide” to “genocide.”

Other Accusations of Genocide

Some have argued that there are other government-imposed actions on Indigenous peoples in Canada that have contributed to genocide. For example, writer Anna Sixsmith has argued that this includes insufficient housing on reserves, police brutality and restricted access to essentials such as clean water, affordable food and healthcare. (See also Social Conditions of Indigenous Peoples in Canada and Health of Indigenous Peoples in Canada.) Sixsmith also points to the “historical sexism of the ​Indian Act,”​ which, in many cases, stripped women of their legal identity (Indian Status), made them dependent on their husbands and alienated them from their communities and bands. (See also Women and the Indian Act.)

The forced sterilization of Indigenous women in Canada has also been viewed as an act of genocide. Sterilization legislation in Alberta (1928–72) and British Columbia (1933–73) attempted to limit the reproduction of “unfit” persons, and increasingly targeted Indigenous women. Coerced sterilization of Indigenous women took place both within and outside existing legislation, and in federally operated Indian hospitals. The practice has continued into the 21st century. Approximately 100 Indigenous women have alleged that they were pressured to consent to sterilization between the 1970s and 2018, often while in the vulnerable state of pregnancy or childbirth. Professor Karen Stote has argued that, in these ways, the coerced sterilization of Indigenous women can be viewed as an attempt to undermine the ability of a group to exist.


Indigenous Perspectives Education Guide

Indigenous Peoples Collection

Further Reading

  • Karen Stote, An Act of Genocide: Colonialism and the Sterilization of Aboriginal Women (2015).

  • Adam Jones, Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction, 3rd edition (2017).

  • Raphael Lemkin, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation - Analysis of Government - Proposals for Redress, chapter 9, (1944).

External Links