‘Personhood’ and a New Understanding of Genocide
“Yeah, shit happens, but don’t you think it’s time the natives
finally got over it and moved on…”
(A sentiment heard far too often from mainstream Canadians when referring to the Indian Residential school experience)
(Note: The following subsection was added 10/2016)
In tandem with the evolution of western civilization came the development of a patently hyper-human phenomenon known today as genocide. The agricultural revolution, which fuelled the accelerated growth of populations and the stratification of human societies (i.e. the elites in control of the masses) also touched off an explosion of synthetic and fundamentally poisonous ideas… ideas unprecedented in all of biological history. Ideas like greed, acquisition, hoarding and the lust for material wealth, land, property, gold, power, etc. that today have become the standards by which many define modern western industrial societies. Some of the lethal by-products of these synthetic standards and values (that evolved out of agrarianism) were expansionism, conquest, colonialism, globalization….and genocide. There are unique subtleties and nuances surrounding the meaning of the word ‘genocide’ and yet most English dictionaries tend to offer fairly rigid and inflexible interpretations of the term.
It is a question of semantics. For example, consider the two terms; genocide and cultural genocide (the latter term doesn’t even show up in standard dictionaries by the way). What do these words actually mean in relation to each other and to the world at large. The rigid, industrialized interpretation would more than likely define genocide as (for example) the campaign to exterminate the Jews during the Holocaust, the Rwandan tragedy or Spain’s brutal conquest of Meso-America. No argument on any of these accounts. But what about Canada’s Indian Residential schools? Would they not instead fall under the less-lethal category of ‘cultural’ genocide’? This is where the subtleties and nuances enter into the picture. The preceding subsection attempted to deconstruct and explain the basic characteristics of Aboriginal culture, i.e., language, diet, spirituality, sociology, music, dress, family, hunting practices, relationship to land, etc. If the intent of forced assimilation was to destroy the above-listed cultural characteristics (and thereby the culture) of Canada’s indigenous peoples then surely this would qualify the policies of the Canadian government and the Church as ‘cultural genocide’.
But here is where another more subtle dynamic needs to be considered. And that is the dynamic of ‘personhood’. There are qualities inherent within the human condition which exist at a deeper and more fundamental level… universal qualities that transcend ethnicity, territorial boundaries and cultural distinctions, and are as common to all as the breathing of air, the beating of a heart or the flowing of tears. These intrinsic qualities in fact constitute our humanity, our sentient foundation (the way we feel) and our personhood. They include our capacity to care, to hope, to aspire, to love…to feel compassion, peace, intimacy, joy and pride…our will to exist, our pursuit of happiness and an understanding of higher, extra-physical realities. These innate qualities represent the quintessence of personhood.
The coercive and sometimes brutal treatment of 160,000 innocent and vulnerable children in Canada’s Indian Residential school system was an assault on, not only their culture. but their personhood as well. The many documented instances of psychological and sexual abuse, being screamed at, beaten and demeaned for being Aboriginal, the tragic death toll in the schools and the systemic vilification of their existence and validity as human beings present a strong argument for the inclusion of the term ‘genocide’ into the Residential school narrative. Why? Because the Canadian government and the Church’s campaign to ‘kill the Indian in the child’ actually went far beyond ‘Indian-ness’ and culture. It cut right through to the heart and core of the child’s personhood – that is where the real ‘killing’ occurred. Whether the church and the government were aware of the irreparable damage they were inflicting on the ‘humanity’ of the native children is debatable – their judgment was no doubt clouded by the notion of superiority, religious zealotry and lust for land – but what their mean-spirited campaign wound up doing, in essence, was the ‘snuffing out’ of the child’s ability to care, to hope, to aspire, to love, to feel (see above). So when the survivors were finally released from the institutions they went back to their communities (and on into adulthood) as severely damaged goods – perhaps the term ‘zombies’ or ‘the walking dead’ might be appropriate. They tried to conduct their lives as ordinary grown-ups, doing what ordinary grown-ups do (i.e., forming relationships, raising families, care-giving, finding employment, looking after their communities, etc.) but something inside of them had died. In a real sense they were empty shells just going through the motions. The lights were on but nobody was home…so to speak.
The culture of abuse, intimidation and fear that became the hallmarks of Canada’s Indian schools was not the only factor contributing to the ‘killing’ of the Aboriginal’s sense of personhood. Other factors that compounded this human tragedy were the ravaging effects of alcohol, tobacco, drugs, alien foods, television, European diseases, systemic racism, etc. which, when all combined together, help to account for today’s high suicide rates amongst Aboriginal youth (five to eleven times the national average depending on the region), the disproportionate numbers of Aboriginals in Canadian prisons, spousal abuse and family violence, the epidemic of morbid obesity and diabetes, alcohol and drug-related deaths, house fires, prostitution, sexual predation and the thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women.
This is why I am getting more and more comfortable with the terms ‘genocide’ and ‘crimes against humanity’ when referring to Canada’s Indian Residential School system.
(Note: The preceding essay is an excerpt from ‘The Honor Song Trilogy -Part One‘ which can be accessed on this website.)