Our own history of genocide

While I was working with a client yesterday, I found myself in the middle of a discussion about the repetitive nature of genocide. How it continues to happen regardless of how much time and energy we spend educating people about the last atrocity.

In a sense, a large part of this pattern has to do with our own histories of genocide. It’s difficult to support international laws that would aggressively prosecute war criminals and genocidaires when our own government is guilty of the same. Even as Canada begins prosecuting the first war criminal under its new genocide laws, the Globe and Mail reports on a new documentary entitled Unrepentant: Kevin Annett and Canada’s Genocide, detailing the country’s policies of dealing with native peoples.

As many as half of the aboriginal children who attended the early years of residential schools died of tuberculosis, despite repeated warnings to the federal government that overcrowding, poor sanitation and a lack of medical care were creating a toxic breeding ground for the rapid spread of the disease, documents show.

A Globe and Mail examination of documents in the National Archives reveals that children continued to die from tuberculosis at alarming rates for at least four decades after a senior official at the Department of Indian Affairs initially warned in 1907 that schools were making no effort to separate healthy children from those sick with the highly contagious disease.

Peter Bryce, the department’s chief medical officer, visited 15 Western Canadian residential schools and found at least 24 per cent of students had died from tuberculosis over a 14-year period. The report suggested the numbers could be higher, noting that in one school alone, the death toll reached 69 per cent.

With less than four months to go before Ottawa officially settles out of court with most former students, a group calling itself the Friends and Relatives of the Disappeared Residential School Children is urging the government to acknowledge this period in the tragic residential-schools saga – and not just the better-known cases of physical and sexual abuse.

The same is true of the United States. Even as the Commonwealth of Virginia (my current home) prepared for the Jamestown Anniversary, Native American tribes decided to use it as an opportunity to protest the government’s policy of denying them tribal status.

Despite the well documented history of nearly 400 tribes in the Virginia area, not a single group has the luxury of sovereign status. The effect? It’s creating a “paper genocide” for members of Virginia’s tribes.

Which begs the question, where are the student protest groups lining DC to demand Native American rights? It’s difficult to claim that we’re outraged by our government’s lack of response to Darfur, while at the same time ignoring what’s been happening at home.

I suppose it’s the same reason that scandals sell newspapers. When genocide happens in a far off country it’s somehow viewed through the lens of a romanticized call-to-action, whereas the one that took place here, and continues to edge forward by small degrees, is rather dirty and unpleasant.

3 thoughts on “Our own history of genocide”

  1. Native Americans have the same rights as any other American. Many tribes were assimilated into the general population. Other tribes signed treaties with the United States that gave them reservation lands, about a dozen of which are larger than Rhode Island. Although some of the original reservation land was parcelled out to Native Americans as indiviually owned property, more than 55 million acres remain. Today, that works out to about one million acres per Native American.

  2. Native Americans do have a right to vote, but when you’re forcibly stripped of your lands and lifestyle, having the right to cast your ballot for the mother of all injustices is kind of…well, honestly, a ridiculous concession. The question to ask is, do the Native Americans have the right to hold an election to succeed from the Union which they wanted no part of? The answer, of course, is no.

    The corollary to that is – if someone picked you up today and dropped you in China and then said, don’t worry, you get the same rights as the Chinese have, is that okay? As you argued, why would you complain about that, as long as you had the same rights? Even though I’d love to visit the country someday, I don’t want to be permanently and forcibly placed there to live as a Chinese citizen.

    As for their assimilation into our society, it was nothing if not forced. In fact, conquering people frequently use forced assimilation in order to breed a race into extension. It’s why we see rape happening time-and-again during genocidal acts (e.g. Rwanda and Darfur).

    As for the land, I’ve not looked up the figures of acres-per-person, but I would have to counter that the only reason each Native American winds up with what might seem like an obscene amount of “property” today is because we’ve done such a thoroughly excellent job of exterminating them. Had they survived with the kind of numbers they had in the 1600’s, and been able to flourish rather than famish, then it’s likely that this pay off would be fairly insufficient.

  3. Playing the Devil’s advocate here… The reason that the Native Americans are not getting the press they rightfully deserve is because they are not being systematically murdered by their government.

    On the other side of the coin… Americans ‘Just don’t wanna know’. Africa is a far away place and their plight just doesn’t concern us. It’s a hopeless situation anyway right?

    It saddens me that Americans on the whole (for the most part), turn a blind eye to not only the injustes in our Country, but those in other Countries as well. Oh but wait, we are in Iraq liberating the people right????? Ah, but there is something for us to gain by being there … remember that little commodity called.. petrol?

    I guess now I can seriously consider myself an ‘Activist’ and proud to be one. In the past few months my otherwise ignorant mind, has truly been opened to the atrocities being perpetuated not only by other governments, but by ours as well.

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