The federal government recognizes residential schools as genocide

A motion passed in the House of Commons last month, which called on the government to recognize residential schools as a form of genocide

Members of Parliament unanimously voted to recognize residential schools as genocide on Oct. 27. (Flickr/Ansel Adams)

Members of Parliament unanimously voted to recognize residential schools as genocide on Oct. 27. (Flickr/Ansel Adams)

Members of Parliament gave unanimous consent in favour of a motion on Oct. 27 that called on the federal government to recognize Canada’s residential schools as genocide. 

NDP MP Leah Gazan introduced the motion, which referred to the United Nations Convention for genocide of 1948 which defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” 

This was the second time a motion like this was put forward, after the first attempt didn’t receive unanimous consent in June last year. 

“I was disappointed in the last parliament that it didn’t pass unanimous consent,” Gazan says. 

“[But] this is certainly a very good first step. I don’t think we’ll ever have reconciliation in this country without truth. I’m glad that all MPs in the house chose to support the unanimous consent motion.”

For over 150 years, approximately 150,000 First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Nation children were taken from their families and forced to attend residential schools. When the Indian Act was amended in 1920, it became mandatory for Treaty-status children between the ages of seven and 15 to attend residential schools. The first residential school opened in 1831 and the last one closed in 1996. 

Residential schools were designed to remove the language and culture of Indigenous children. With low quality in education, children were often subjected to physical and sexual abuse and punished for speaking their own language. 

I think things are becoming clearer with the searches within the unmarked graves,” Gazan says.

Last year, many First Nation communities found unmarked and marked graves at or near residential schools across Canada. In May 2021, Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation found the remains of 215 children at an unmarked grave in the Kamloops Indian Residential School site in British Columbia. 

This was followed by a further 751 unmarked graves being discovered by the Cowessess First Nation at a former residential school site in Saskatchewan. In July 2021, more than 160 graves were discovered by the Penelakut Tribe in B.C. at the site of the Kuper Island Indian Residential School site. 

“It’s important to note that the Catholic Church was the administrator for over 70 per cent of the residential schools and if the [Pope] is saying this is genocide, it becomes harder for people in the House of Commons to refute it. I think that really impacted the outcome,” Gazan says. 

Pope Francis arrived in Canada on a six-day trip from July 24 to 29 to apologize for the years of abuse to Indigenous Peoples when the church controlled residential schools. The Pope visited the former site of Ermineskin Residential School in Maskwacis, Alberta and met with Indigenous Peoples and members of the parish community to deliver an apology in Maskwacis. He also attended the Lac Ste Anne Pilgrimage event, met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and apologized for the role the church had in the residential school system. 

Gazan says while there are many steps in regards to truth and reconciliation in Canada, she, among others, are planning on talking to survivors, families, advocates, and community groups to figure out the next steps forward. 

“I think that’s a positive step forward for reconciliation, but also for survivors and their descendants, to not constantly have their experience just questioned and denied.”