Indigenous·Opinion

Term cultural genocide 'carries weight' in the classroom, teacher says

When commission chair Justice Murray Sinclair used the term cultural genocide to characterize what happened in the schools, I felt a sense of victory and hope because now I can call it what it is.

Allows educators to 'accurately portray what happened in Indian residential schools,' says Kahente Horn-Miller

The term cultural genocide allows educators to 'accurately portray what happened in Indian residential schools,' says university professor Kahente Horn-Miller

As I witnessed the unveiling of the recommendations from the landmark residential schools report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I asked myself: What does this do for us as educators?

Then I knew. When commission chair Justice Murray Sinclair used the term cultural genocide to characterize what happened in the schools, I felt a sense of victory and hope because now I can call it what it is.

I also felt the weight of the burden I must hold as an educator in a major public institution. I take it on with great responsibility and pride. This is my role in reconciliation.

I have been teaching for the last four years in post-secondary institutions. I make a point of teaching my students about colonization in Canada. I teach about the continued impacts of residential schools on the lives of all Indigenous Peoples.

Until now, I have never used the term genocide in my classroom or even considered the term cultural genocide for that matter.

Cultural genocide carries weight

Why is the term a controversial one? It carries weight. Often left for the use of radicals, I and others felt it was too "out there" for our students to grasp and would have turned them off of the issue while making us look like extreme radicals in our classrooms.

As a Kanienkehaka (Mohawk) woman, the seven generations principle is something that guides my teaching method. It is a cornerstone to who we are as a people because it is about accountability — accountability for what you say and what you do.

So when I teach about residential schools, I am acutely aware of the way that I teach my students about such an important issue and the words I used to characterize it.

My goal has always been to provide them with the most well-rounded knowledge and I do this in a way that engenders dialogue and discussion.

Sometimes you need to make your language palatable, using words and concepts that foster openness and safety. I think I have been successful so far.

I have a lot of students who come into indigenous studies with little or no knowledge of residential schools. Many keep mum about this and some express the horror and guilt they feel for what their ancestors did.

I also have students who live with the day-to-day impacts of the residential schools. No one is immune. All Indigenous Peoples have some family member who has been to one of the schools, although many young people are not fully aware of what happened.

I thought using the term genocide would not have helped in creating the safe space necessary for learning about this important issue for any of my students.

Opening door for new dialogue

Yet, this is the direction we are headed.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission's work has opened the door for us to begin this important dialogue on Canada's involvement in the genocide of Indigenous Peoples.

Recommendations have enabled educators to begin to accurately portray what happened in the context of this declaration and reconciliation.

What happened in the residential schools era is genocide. It is the absolute destruction of our ways, our languages, our families and identities.

From my perspective it is a stepping stone in the right direction to call it cultural genocide. It is the starting point to a much larger process of awareness, recognition and reconciliation.

As educators, we have a clear responsibility to continue to teach about the residential schools. Now we also have the go-ahead to call it cultural genocide.