The movement to describe Canada’s system of Indian Residential Schools as a “genocide” has been gaining momentum since the late twentieth century. That momentum became stronger in 2021, when it was claimed that the unmarked graves of hundreds of Indigenous children who’d attended these schools had been found using ground-penetrating radar. While none of those claimed graves have yet been found, the social panic that followed the initial announcements has not fully abated.
In 2022, Canadian MPs unanimously voted for a parliamentary motion that described the schools as genocidal. Even the Pope has now used the word “genocide” to describe the schools and the larger project of assimilation they stood for—a notable development given that the Catholic Church ran almost 50 percent of these government-funded institutions during their period of operation, from the 1870s until 1997.
Indeed, the word genocide is now thrown around so casually in regard to the approximately 150,000 Indigenous students who attended Residential Schools, that it’s easy to forget how recently this allegation became popularized. In 1996, Canada’s Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples indicted Residential Schools for the “horrors” committed under their watch, leading the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs (as it was then named) to issue a statement to the effect that residential schools were guilty of creating a “tragic legacy.” The word “genocide” was not used.
Even in 2015, when Beverley McLachlan, then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, weighed in on Residential Schools, she described their mission to assimilate Indigenous children as “cultural” genocide; rather than genocide, full stop. This language was echoed that same year in a summary volume published in 2015 by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which reported that for over a century, the government’s central aim had been to “cause Aboriginal peoples to cease to exist … which can best be described as ‘cultural genocide.’”
Over the last eight years, the qualifier “cultural” has fallen away. And it is now seen as heretical to challenge the claim that Canada’s Residential School system qualifies as a true genocide in the sense of the Holocaust, Holodomor, or Rwandan Genocide—despite the fact that such a classification remains questionable under international law. Indeed, some Canadian activists claim that even debating the applicability of the word “genocide” to the Residential School system is, itself, a “tool of genocide.”
Nevertheless, that is what I intend to do in the essay that follows.