Category Archives: Genocide

Torn from Her Family at age of 5


At the Pat Porter Centre on September 27, 2022, we were lucky to sit beside Vivian Barkley, sister of Jennifer Wood, one of the presenters.  Vivian came all the way from Kitchener Ontario to support her sister Jennifer Wood today. I was impressed. Both of them are residential third school survivors. That means 3 generations of their family went to a residential school.


Vivian told us how she had been swept into an Indian Residential School at the age of 5. She explained that the authorities had really gone into their community to roust up older children, but when they came to their house she was included. She said it was a shocking day when she was torn away from her family and community at such a young age for totally inexplicable reasons that she could not understand. Her family was very poor and could not afford to pay for her to come home for her school holidays so mostly for 5 years she stayed in the school separated from her family. Can you imagine what reasons the educational authorities might give to justify their actions of ‘kidnapping’ these children and taking them away from their homes?


It is not without reason, that such actions are considered by the UN Genocide Convention to be genocide. This is how that international convention, which has been signed by Canada, defines genocide:


In Article II of that Convention:


“…genocide means any of the following acts committed with 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 members 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;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. [emphasis added]”


Was Canada guilty of genocide.  The Truth and Reconciliation Commission called it “cultural genocide.” Was that qualification necessary? It also says that everyone complicit with such acts can also be punished along with the perpetrator.

Christiane and I were both struck by how much Vivian was free of rancor and resentment notwithstanding how she had been treated by Canada.  How would you feel if Canada did that to your children? What would it take for you to want to reconcile with such a country? Is it something that can be done in a couple of weeks? Or a couple of years?

For Christiane and I this was a remarkable day. We learned some harsh Canadian truths by watching the program.

Genocide Repudiated


The Indian Residential Schools established by the Canadian government under the provisions of the Indian Act were instruments it used, often through its church partners,  to ensure dominance over indigenous people. Even if the Popes had disavowed the Doctrine of Discovery, the basis of these notions were also the foundation of that doctrine, which I have called vile.

Here is what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (‘TRC’)  said in its report to the Canada in 2015,

“For over a century, the central goals of Canada’s Aboriginal policy were to eliminate Aboriginal governments; ignore Aboriginal rights; terminate the Treaties; and, through a process of assimilation, cause Aboriginal peoples to cease to exist as distinct legal, social, cultural, religious, and racial entities in Canada. The establishment and operation of residential schools were a central element of this policy, which can best be described as “cultural genocide.””


Since that report was delivered many critics have said the TRC was too gentle with Canada. They suggested the word “cultural” should be dropped from that destruction. They say, Canada was guilty of genocide. Pope Francis on his recent visit to Canada said he thought it “genocide.” The subsequent report of the 2019 Inquiry into Missing and Murdered  Women and Girls, said the actions reported on in that report amount to “genocide.” There was no qualification. It may be that the reticence of the TRC was a consequence of it not being authorized to accuse people of crimes, and genocide is a crime.

The TRC said this about genocide:

“Physical genocide is the mass killing of the members of a targeted group, and biological genocide is the destruction of the group’s reproductive capacity. Cultural genocide is the destruction of those structures and practices that allow the group to continue as a group. States that engage in cultural genocide set out to destroy the political and social institutions of the targeted group. Land is seized, and populations are forcibly transferred and their movement is restricted. Languages are banned. Spiritual leaders are persecuted, spiritual practices are forbidden, and objects of spiritual value are confiscated and destroyed. And, most significantly to the issue at hand, families are disrupted to prevent the transmission of cultural values and identity from one generation to the next.”



And then the TRC added, “In its dealing with Aboriginal people, Canada did all these things.” If Canada did all 3 things necessary to be classified as genocide, then the TRC is saying, Canada committed genocide in its dealings with its Indian Residential Schools. According to the TRS, and was amply justified by the evidence revealed in its report,


As if that was not enough the TRC also said this,

“Canada denied the right to participate fully in Canadian political, economic, and social life to those Aboriginal people who refused to abandon their Aboriginal identity. Canada outlawed Aboriginal spiritual practices, jailed Aboriginal spiritual leaders, and confiscated sacred objects. And, Canada separated children from their parents, sending them to residential schools. This was done not to educate them, but primarily to break their link to their culture and identity.   In justifying the government’s residential school policy, Canada’s First prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, told the House of Commons in 1883:

When the school is on the reserve the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write his habits, and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly pressed on myself, as the head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.”


But as if that was not enough the TRC added,

“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.”


Who can possibly deny that taking children away from their parents for such a vile policy is not genocide? I think the conclusion is clear and unassailable.

In my opinion these genocidal policies are incompatible with the statements made by Pope Francis in Canada. He spoke plainly and clearly. This was a most welcome message from a Pope.


More Blood  


Today, by a remarkable coincidence, one day after I posted about the Bloodlands as they were called by Timothy Snyder, Winnipeg Free Press columnist Allan Levine commented on the same issue based on Snyder’s other book. Levine’s maternal grandfather born in those Bloodlands west of Kyiv. He was 12 years old when World I broke out and 15 years old when Lenin and the Bolsheviks seized control of Russia after the horrors of that war. In my post I quoted how as Snyder said this in his book   The Road to Unfreedom, “together, some ten million people were killed in a decade as a result of two rival colonizations of the same Ukrainian territory”.


Levine’s grandfather was a Jew who lived in a part of that region that was constantly fought over by various powerful and brutal  forces.  This reminded me of another book I had recently read by Phillipe Sands called East West Street. It is a fascinating book about the origins of the notion of crimes against humanity and genocide. It is no accident that a number of the most important people involved in that history also came from that same region. One of them was Rafael Lemkin who invented the word “genocide.” He came from Lviv a city much in the news these past 2 months, but I had never heard of it before I read that book. Here is a section of the opening chapter of the book about that city:


“Between September 1914 and July 1944 control of the city changed eight times. After a long spell as the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s “Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria and the Grand Duchy  of Kraków with the Duchies of Auschwitz and Zator”—yes it is that Auschwitz—the city passed from the hands of Austria to Russia, then back to Austria, then briefly to western Ukraine, then to Poland, then to the Soviet Union, then to Germany, then back to Soviet Union, and finally to Ukraine where control resides today…the  streets of Lviv are a microcosm of Europe’s turbulent twentieth century, the focus of bloody conflicts that tore cultures apart.”


It is like hyenas and lions fighting over a carcass. During these times the city never moved, but its name changed many times from Lemberg, Lviv, Lvov, and Lwów. Now Putin wants to rip it back into Russia one more time and he doesn’t care about how many people he has to kill to do that  or whether they are women or children.


Levine’s grandfather was lucky—very lucky—to escape to Canada in 1921. Levine says that during the 12 years of 1933 to 1945, “upwards of 50 million civilians and soldiers were killed during those 12 terrible years.”  I think he meant they were killed around the world.  But this was the bloodiest part of that world because more than 10 million people died there. But that was then; this is now. As Levine said,

“Now, with the atrocities perpetrated by Russian soldiers on Ukrainian civilians near Kyiv, Mariupol, Bucha, and other cities, Russian President Vladimir Putin has once again reignited the horrors of the bloodlands. And to what end?”


Levine quotes from Snyder’s other book, Bloodlands, about how Stalin and Hitler “pursued transformative agendas with no concern for the lives of individual human beings.”  That is what fascist dictators do. And that is exactly what Putin is now doing. He, like them, is trying to build up a society on the basis of lives which are meant to be sacrificed. And sacrifice them Hitler and Stalin did and now Putin wants to do exactly the same thing. This is another great moment in history. Are we up to the challenge of confronting this radical evil? That is why this issue is so important and why I am obsessed with what is happening in Ukraine. I fear there will be more blood.

Exterminate all the Brutes

Kurtz, the central disturbing character in Conrad’s novel, The Heart of Darkness, was a product of Europe.  He was the child of Europe, believing naturally, without thinking about it, that Europeans were naturally superior to and could help the native savages achieve civilization. All the Africans had to do was assimilate to the superior Europeans. Europeans of course, are famous for this point of view though it is shared by many peoples.

Kurtz had been given the task by his company of preparing a manual to help new Europeans learn about the job of “helping” the native inferiors.  As Marlow, the narrator of the novel,  said, “the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs had entrusted him with the making of a report, for its future guidance.” He wrote it.  “He began with the argument that we whites, from the point of development we had arrived at, ‘must necessarily appear to them [savages] in the nature of supernatural beings—we approach them with the might of a deity,’ and so on, and so on.  ‘By the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded.’  The reader, like Marlow got the idea reading this pamphlet of “an exotic Immensity ruled by an august Benevolence.”  It made Marlow tingle with enthusiasm.  No doubt it had the same desired effect on new recruits.  Marlow noted “that this was the unbounded power of eloquence—of words—of burning noble words.”


Marlow explains though that this report was started “before his—let us say nerves–, went wrong, and caused him to preside at certain midnight dances ending with unspeakable rites which …were offered up to him.   After all Kurtz, as Marlow said, “had the power to charm or frighten rudimentary souls into an aggravated witch-dance in his honour.” Those rites are merely hinted at. Conrad never explains exactly what happened, we just know that Kurtz was treated like a god, and withered black human  heads were attached to the end of spikes on poles in the dark jungle. How that happened we are left to imagine, and our imagination is no doubt more effective than any bald statements would be.  Good novels can do that.  As a result, at the end of that report Kurtz abandoned  his noble ideals, and his noble words.

As Marlow said,

“…at the end of that moving appeal to every altruistic sentiment it blazed at you, luminous and terrifying, like a flash of lightening in a serene sky: ‘Exterminate all the brutes.’”

In Kurtz’s case, that was the inevitable result of all those noble ideals. Just as it was the inevitable result of all the pious talk of civilizing the natives. It was all a lie—a cunning, false rapacious lie!  That was the end of the noble philanthropic enterprise of European colonialism.  That was the end of noble lies everywhere. That was the heart of darkness we all carry within us and which we have to guard against. Or we too will end up exterminating the brutes!

This has significance far beyond European colonization. It is a chastening for all enterprises with excessive hubris. We would do well to be modest. Humility always becomes us. Over confidence not so much.

Kurtz is us. We are no different. That is the most terrifying part of his story.

Cultural Genocide Part II


When I went to school I was told that Prime Minister John A. MacDonald was one of the heroes of Canada. We thought he should have been awarded the status of saint John. He appointed himself as the Minister Responsible for Indians in his cabinet. If you think the expression “cultural genocide” is too strong to describe what Canada did with the imposition of its Indian Residential Schools on indigenous people consider this statement he made in the House of Commons in 1883:

“When the school is on the reserve the child lives with its parents, who are savages: he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write his habits, and training mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write.  It has been strongly impressed on myself, as the head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.”


The Prime Minister did not misspeak. He meant it. This was government policy. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission  explained this in this way:

“These measures were part of a coherent policy to eliminate Aboriginal people as distinct people and to assimilate them into the Canadian mainstream against their will. Deputy Minister of Indian Affairs Duncan Campbell Scott outlined the goals of that policy in 1920, when he told a parliamentary committee that “our object is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic.” Canada did not do this with “good intent” as some suggest.”


As the TRC said,

“the Canadian government pursued this policy of cultural genocide because it wished to divest itself of its legal and financial obligations to Aboriginal people and gain control over their land and resources. If every Aboriginal person had been “absorbed into the body politic,” there would be no reserves, no Treaties, and no Aboriginal rights.”

 In fact, then there would be no Aboriginals.  The genocide would be complete. The final solution would be realized.


Suffering Olympics

A wise friend of mine made a very important point. He said taking children away from their parents without consent in itself was the “greatest abuse.” You really don’t have to rail on about anything else (like I have been doing and will continue to do).  After all, according to the UN convention on Genocide that is enough to constitute genocide.

I would just put it a little differently.  Taking children away from their parents without parental consent is certainly enough to generate outrage. Yet, there are so many other egregious abuses: e.g. starving children in those schools; putting the children into what were literally fire traps; using children as forced labour instead of educating them; physical, sexual, and emotional abuse; shredding their self-esteem and denigrating their parents and their culture; bullying children and hence teaching the children that this was the way to treat their children; robbing children of the opportunity to learn how to take care of children from their parents which led directly to the effects of residential schools cascading through the generations which in turn made it impossible to do what so many blind privileged white people want them to do-i.e. “get over it.”

I don’t want to get into a suffering Olympics where we have to rate the sins when each one itself should be what the Catholics call a mortal sin. I find it impossible to say which is the “greatest abuse” when there is such a long line of horrors. Besides what is the point?

The real point is what are we going to do about it?


Genocide in the Americas


Of course there were specific acts of genocide in North America and South America. Like the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890 where the U.S. Army’s Seventh Cavalry committed an atrocity mainly against women and children. Brave army that was. They said it was done in retaliation for the slaughter at the Battle of Little Bighorn where Siouian warriors under the direction of Chief Crazy Horse defeated General George Custer and most of his soldiers. The Battle of Little Bighorn was seen by many as the final military attempted crushing of Aboriginal Independence in the United States, if not North America. As Anthony Hall mentioned in his wonderful book, The American Empire and the 4th World, “At the time of this massacre the Indian population in the area of the present-day United States had been reduced to 200,000 from an estimated pre-Columbian population of between 10 and 20 million.”

As I have said before many of those deaths resulted from hidden biological warfare launched by germs that the European invaders unknowingly carried with them, but others from specific acts like this battle.

Those battles led, in Canada to an oppressive regime of shackling Indigenous peoples, who were not released from them them until after World War II and even then only to some extent. The main instrument of that dominance in Canada was the Indian Act, an infamous federal statute that has been amended many times but is still with us today, which I will blog about soon. I think people who don’t know about the Indian Act will be shocked. Until that law was changed, the  indigenous people of Canada were not allowed to organize, for fear of repetition of the violence against the control by Europeans and their descendants.

Whether the word “genocide” or not is used, there is no doubt that the process of transforming indigenous societies by European colonization was a harsh disaster for the Indigenous peoples. As Hall described it,

“…the actual process of transforming some of the richest and most extensive Indian societies on the planet proved catastrophic for the Indigenous peoples. Thus began the world’s most ruthless and sustained episode of ethnic cleansing, one that many believe continues yet. From its earliest stages, this drive aimed to extinguish Aboriginal civilization of the Americas and to replace it with an expanded transatlantic domain for the culture of Europe and for Western civilization.”

If you look at the modern definition of “genocide” now embedded in international law, you will that this clearly qualifies as genocide.

At times the Aboriginals looked to the monarchs of the Old World to staunch the bleeding. At best that met with mixed success. For example in New Spain the Spanish monarch was seen as the only force capable of protecting any Aboriginal rights. However, as Hall said,

“While the Spanish sovereign sporadically placed some checks on the murderous excesses of the Spanish colonists, the interventions of the central authority were generally too weak to moderate significantly the acquisitive zeal that attracted fortune-seeking immigrants from Europe to the New World”

England hardly provided more protection than its Spanish rivals. As Hall said,

“While England’s early colonial enterprises in North America were shrouded in the language of Christian evangelization, a more pressing spur to join in Europe’s transatlantic expansion was the fear that, if action was not quickly taken, Roman Catholic powers, including Portugal and France, would soon monopolize and control the apparently vast wealth of the so-called New World.”

Whether we like it or not, or admit it or not, this history is still with us today. Our society in fact is built on that genocide.




For a while in the 18th century it looked as if indigenous people had weathered the storm. Indigenous people are nothing if not resilient. Non-indigenous people often falsely accuse indigenous people of being too married to their traditions. Richard White a Professor of History at Washington University has shown how false this assumption was:

“If the Indian peoples of the eighteenth century had been wedded to tradition, then there would have been no horse nomads on the Great Plains, no Navajo sheepherders or silver workers or weavers. There would indeed be, no Navajos, no Lakotas, nor Muskogees, nor numerous other groups who first began to think of themselves as separate and distinct peoples in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

In a world of disaster, Indian peoples forged opportunities. In the midst of a population collapse that turned villages into funeral pyres, they created new peoples and new tribes and confederacies. In a world where old ideas seemed incapable of explaining so much change, so much misery, and such staggering possibilities, they spawned prophets, rebels, and saviors in a seemingly unending profusion. Since Europeans could not be banished, Indians sought to include them in a common world and pursued new ways and forms to control and contain them. And, for a while, it all seemed possible.’

In many cases Indigenous people after contacting Europeans, created new traditions, which they passed on to their youth. They adapted. In fact they had to be great adapters in order to survive an onslaught more horrific than that faced by any other people anywhere at any time.


Speed of Diseases


The speed of the devastation brought about by European diseases on contact with Indigenous people, for which the native people had no inherited defences as the Europeans did, was astonishing. Even the Europeans did not fully appreciate what had happened. They had never experienced anything like it either.

As historian Jay Miller explained, “Again and again, throughout the Americas, as Europeans advanced, they moved into regions already emptied by disease.” That seems incomprehensible. The European diseases travelled faster than they did!

As a result as the Spaniards in the south and later French and English farther north, moved on from ravishing one native community they would arrive at another only to find them already depleted.  As depopulation ensued local indigenous people could not muster enough people to carry on their traditional ceremonies, thus disconnecting the people from their land and hence their source of spiritual sustenance. Political and spiritual leaders were also lost. It left the native communities in disarray and reeling and unable to resist the European invaders.

Jay Miller described the contact between Europeans and Indigenous people like this:

“The end result of the European quest for riches, slaves, and land, was the reshaping of the native social order.  But it was not the direct action of Europeans themselves that produced this vast change. Rather, it was their inadvertent introduction of virulent diseases.  The germs that Europeans carried to the so-called New World visited utter and complete devastation on its indigenous inhabitants. Diseases unknown in the Americas, to which the natives had no immunity, struck whole communities with fierce and heartrending violence.’

What makes this even more surprising and disorienting, was that the indigenous people were so healthy. They were actually healthier  than the European invaders! As Miller said,

“Except for parasites, occasional malnutrition, and minor germs, the native population of the Americas was remarkably healthy. The people lived an open, uncrowded life, knew a great deal about herbal medications, and practiced cleanliness in sweat baths. This was sufficient to deal with most common illnesses. But this way of life proved no match for the germs cradled and nurtured in the filth of European cities and ports.”

Smallpox, measles, and other common European diseases wiped out entire communities before most of their inhabitants had actually seen a European. Whole regions were depopulated.

New diseases have come to plague people in the past, and in fact are doing so now as I write this with the introduction of a new, deadly, and scary disease, namely coronavirus. This has had dreadful effect on people around the world. But  imagine what the effect would be if we were faced with multiple new diseases! This is exactly what indigenous people experienced after contacting European invaders. If an indigenous community survived one deadly epidemic it would soon be met with another. If not small pox, then measles, or whooping cough, or scarlet fever, or influenza. The list of deadly new killers was astonishing.

In the result, some have estimated that 95% of the indigenous people vanished within a century of European contact! Nothing beats that.

The European Invaders brought Invisible and Deadly Weapons of Mass Destruction 


Many people think that most Indigenous people died after contact with Europeans because the European invaders were so powerful and the natives were so weak. This is of course grounded in that Original sin. The Europeans assumed they were superior and they have taught this prejudice to those that followed them to the “New World”.  It is commonly believed that the natives of North and South America succumbed because they were primitive, from weak societies, there were so few of them, and they were superstitious. As Ronald Wright said in his book Stolen Continents, “Such explanations explain nothing, even by their own false premises.”

It is true that Europeans came to the “New World” with powerful weapons. Astonishing ships, blades of steel, guns, vicious dogs, and horses.  But those were not their most powerful weapons. Their most powerful weapon was disease. As Wright explained,

“Europe possessed biological weapons that fate had been stacking against America for thousands of years. Among them were smallpox, measles, influenza, bubonic plague, yellow fever, cholera, and malaria—all unknown in the Western Hemisphere before 1492. Somehow they had not made the journey to the New World with the remote ancestors of the American Indians during the last Ice Age. Perhaps they were frozen to death on the way; perhaps they had not yet evolved. Whatever the reason, Native Americans, having had no exposure, had little immunity; they caught the new sickness quickly, and infection was extremely virulent. “The Indians die so easily that the bare look and smell of a Spaniard causes them to give up the ghost,” one eyewitness wrote.  Even today, isolated tribes can be decimated by something as “minor” as the common cold on the first contact with missionaries or prospectors.”

Jared Diamond in his Pulitzer prize winning book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, speculated that the original Europeans who travelled across the land bridge between Asia and North America during the last Ice Age came to the “New World” before they themselves had built up immunities. He suggested that the first people of the Western Hemisphere came before they domesticated animals in Europe and most of these diseases evolved from animal diseases to human diseases. At first they were just as deadly to Europeans as they were much later to Indigenous people of the Americas. It took many millennia for the Europeans to build up immunity. By the time they arrived in the “New World” after 1492, the invaders were not affected by the deadly germs they carried. The people in the “New World” were not so lucky; they were ravaged by those diseases.

Ronald Wright described the onslaught this way:

“It is now clear that Old World plagues killed at least half the population of the Aztec, Maya, and Inca civilization shortly before their overthrow. The sheer loss of people was devastating enough (Europe reeled for a century after the Black Death which was less severe), but disease was also a political assassination squad, removing kings, generals, and seasoned advisors at the very time they were needed most.

The great death raged for more than a century. By 1600 after some twenty waves of pestilence had swept through the Americas, less than a tenth of the original population remained. Perhaps 90 million died, the equivalent, in today’s terms, to the loss of a billion.  It was the greatest mortality in history. To conquered and conqueror alike, it seemed as though god really was on the white man’s side.”

I often wonder why I did not learn this brutal history in school. Was someone trying to hide something?  It seems like a surprising oversight.