Disturbing discoveries of unmarked graves of indigenous in Canada

DISTURBING DISCOVERIES OF UNMARKED GRAVES OF INDIGENOUS IN CANADA ARE ONLY THE TIP OF THE ICEBERG.  AS MARTIN LUTHER KING JR WROTE IN HIS BOOK WHY WE CAN’T WAIT  (1964) “OUR NATION WAS BORN IN GENOCIDE”, MEANING THE GENOCIDE BY EUROPEAN SETTLERS OF THE TEN MILLION INDIGENOUS PEOPLES LIVING IN THE TERRITORY THAT IS TODAY THE US AND CANADA.  THE SURVIVORS OF THE ONSLAUGHT WERE THEN EITHER PUT INTO RESERVATIONS — OR SUBJECTED TO INDOCTRINATION IN ORDER TO DESTROY THEIR INDIGENOUS CULTURES AND IDENTITIES.  TAMARA STARBLANKET WROTE A BRILLIANT DISSERTATION ON THE SUBJECT. 

Tamara Starblanket, Suffer the Little Children: Genocide, Indigenous Nations and the Canadian State, Clarity Press, Atlanta, 2018, pp. 374, Index.

The sad discoveries of unmarked graves in the grounds of the “residential schools” in Canada gives us the opportunity to reflect on wider implications.  Tamara Starblanket’s dissertation revealing the continuing process of physical and cultural extinction the Original Nations of North America deserves our attention.  Not only professional historians but also the media and civil society must  abandon double standards, selective indignation and that most effective weapon:  silence.

An incisive foreword by History Professor Ward Churchill and a strong Epilogue by international law expert Sharon Venne[1] make this brilliant dissertation a political manifesto, a call for action to restore the human rights of the Original Nations of Canada, especially their right of self-determination, which has been and continues to be violated by the colonizers, the Canadian settler-society.  In this timely and morally necessary book, Starblanket gives particular attention to the forced transfer of indigenous children to institutions whose raison d’être was to indoctrinate and “educate” them away from their culture and heritage so as to erase indigenous memory and reprogram the younger generation as “Canadians”. These institutions were notorious for death and disease, torture, forced starvation, forced labour and sexual predation.

In the introduction Starblanket addresses the wall of evasion and denial surrounding the on-going crime against Indigenous Peoples.  She quotes Harold Cardinal, a survivor of the residential schools: “The policies adopted by Canada over the years with regard to Indians are not different from the rationale employed by Nazi Germany in its implementation of what is called the ‘Final Solution’ Residential schools were only one element.” Yet, the rubrics of denial are many.

Chapter 1 focuses on the definition of genocide and its application to Indigenous Peoples. Chapter 2 describes the deliberate policies of separating indigenous children from their parents and the attempt at making true “Canadians” out of them.  There are many “smoking guns” that point at the “intention” to destroy the indigenous culture.  As Duncan Campbell Scott, Superintended of the Department of Indian Affairs wrote: “I want to get rid of the Indian problem…Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question” (p. 21).  One may add that Campbell added insult to injury by referring to an “Indian” problem, when he meant the right of identity of the Original Nations of Canada — the Algonquin, the Cree, the Lingit, the Mi’kmaq, the Mohawk,  the Oneida, the Squamish – none of them inhabitants of the Indian Sub-continent!

Chapter 3 reviews the history of Canada as a colonizing State and analyses the phenomenon of “cognitive conditioning” (P. 160f).  She cites an insightful study by Steven Newcomb, Director of the Indigenous Law Institute, on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples[2] and the Paradigm of Domination”.  It is important to understand the unseen assumptions in colonial law, the media, and academia concerning the Original Nations of North America and the use of metaphors:  “Cognitive theory enables us to realize that [western] law is the result of non-indigenous cognitive processes, social practices and conventions, and cultural patterns, and of the way that membes of the dominating society imaginatively project taken-for-granted categories and concepts onto indigenous peoples” of which the “overall effect has been the traumatic intergenerational domination of [Indigenous Peoples] existence” [3] (p. 161). 

Chapter 4 is aptly titled “Smoke and Mirrors. Canada’s Pretence of Compliance with the Genocide Convention”.  She cites Eli Wiesel’s famous book Night:  “They are committing the greatest indignity human beings can inflict on one another:  telling people who have suffered excruciating pain and loss that their pain and loss were illusions.” (p. 206).  Indeed, society and the media have been in denial of the crimes committed and still being committed against Indigenous Peoples.  It is a kind of negationism, which, unlike the vulgar negationism of the Holocaust, is more or less socially-acceptable in the US and Canada.  Starblanket refers to Article II of the Genocide Convention and cites the five acts “committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:  a) Killing members of the group; b) causing serious bodily or mental harm to member of the group; c) deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; d) imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; 3) forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” [4] She shows how these violations have been perpetrated against Indigenous Peoples.  describes the forcible transfer of Indigenous children, which Prime Minister Harper blandly referred to as “profoundly negative” and therefore “wrong” (p. 220).  Yet, isn’t “wrong” a far cry from criminal?  Is it a subterfuge to avoid the possibility of legal recourse and remedy?

There is an urgent need to rehabilitate the indigenous communities and give them the necessary financing and space to allow them to reconstruct their lives and their future.  Notwithstanding lip service to the rights of indigenous, to ILO Convention 169, to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, there is little or no conviction behind governmental pronouncements and the ultimate goal remains the “assimilation” of the remaining indigenous after their respective cultures have been extinguished.  There is something unnatural about the Canadian Government’s “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” (page 274), which in a real sense constitutes “a safety valve, enabling recognition without facing legal culpability” (footnote 9 on p. 363), because of the legal loopholes built-in and other intellectual manoeuvres.

Surely everyone needs truth – most urgently the non-indigenous, 99% of whom have no conception of the monstruous crimes committed and still being committed against Indigenous Peoples — not only in Canada, but in the United States, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, etc.  In her conclusion Starblanket reminds us that “the non-indigenous scholar is unable to conceive of his/her complicity in the brutal or destructive nature of colonialism, and furthermore cannot conceive that the problem exists in the society that allows horrific acts of violence against the innocent to continue” (p. 272).  One would think that “there is no sugar-coating genocide” (p. 270), but the fact is that suppression of information leads to suppression of thought, of empathy, of the inner voice that tells us that something must be done. Truth requires not only an “apology” followed by “business as usual”, but a commitment to try to make some sort of reparation.  This reviewer strongly agrees with Starblanket’s assessment that “so-called state solutions cloaked in euphemisms and rhetoric such as ‘reconciliation’ only further the colonial agenda. … For indigenous Peoples who have undergone genocidal acts, reconciliation is an oxymoron. the illusion that Indigenous Peoples are now achieving justice must be dispelled”.” (p. 274).  The problem remains that there is no genuine remorse, but only public relations exercises aimed at distracting attention and sowing confusion.  

The late UN Special Rapporteur of the Sub-commission on Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, Professor Miguel Alfonso Martinez’ observed that “it is not possible to undo all that has been done…but this does not negate the ethical imperative to undo (even at the expense, if need be, of the straightjacket imposed by the unbending observance of the “rule of [non-indigenous] law”) the wrongs [crimes] done both spiritually and materially, to the Indigenous Peoples” (p. 269).  I would like to be bolder and say that there must be a “road map” designed by Indigenous Peoples and supported by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to make rehabilitation and reparation happen.

Throughout the book Starblanket demonstrates a broad knowledge of both history and law. What can we learn from this book?  Perhaps the bottom line is that colonization by the Europeans has never ended. There was no decolonization process like in Africa or Asia. To this day the Indigenous Peoples of North America continue to live in a form of colonial subjugation, and unlike the peoples of Africa and Asia, the Original Nations of the United States and Canada were never restored to independence and prosperity, partly because the Original Nations were victims of physical genocide and the European settlers — actually uninvited migrants — became so numerous that the Indigenous Peoples became minorities in their own lands, their natural resources were looted, the tribes that had given the names to the continent  

In a world plagued by fake news, fake history and fake law, it is remarkable that this intellectually honest dissertation was accepted in a conformist academic environment.  It is even more significant that Starblanket’s necessary message has been published in book form.  This gives reason for mitigated optimism.  Her book is a tour de force, important not only for Indigenous Peoples, but especially for non-indigenous who may be moved to action based on the common humanity of all members of the human family, who believe that natural justice requires affirmative action to begin restoring indigenous peoples to a position that will guarantee the survival of their ancient culture and traditions.  Perhaps Canada should consider nominating indigenous traditions as “intangible cultural heritage of mankind”[5] and take measures necessary to preserve them.

A.      de Zayas, 23 chemin des Crêts de Pregny, CH-1218 Grand Saconnex, Geneva, Switzerland
Tel. 0041 22 7882231    zayas@bluewin.ch


[1] Venne, Our Elders Understand our Rights: Evolving International Law regarding Indigenous Peoples’ Rights.  Penticton, British Columbia, Theytus Books 1998.

[2] https://www.un.org/development/desa/indigenouspeoples/declaration-on-the-rights-of-indigenous-peoples.html

[3] Griffiths Law Review, 20, No. 3 /2011. Newcomb is the author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery, which has been a best seller on Amazon, he is co-producer of the The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code, directed by Sheldon Wolfchild (Dakota).

[4] https://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/crimeofgenocide.aspx

[5] https://ich.unesco.org/en/what-is-intangible-heritage-00003

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