NDP seeking MPs' unanimous consent to label residential school experience as genocide

An NDP MP is planing to table a motion in the House of Commons tomorrow seeking unanimous consent to call on the federal government to recognize what happened at residential schools as a genocide.

NDP MP Leah Gazan is presenting the motion on Thursday after question period

A growing memorial outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School to honour the 215 children whose remains reportedly have been discovered buried there on Friday June 4, 2021. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

An NDP MP is planing to table a motion in the House of Commons tomorrow seeking unanimous consent to call on the federal government to recognize what happened at residential schools as a genocide.

Leah Gazan, who represents the riding of Winnipeg Centre, told CBC News she believes the residential school experience meets the definition of genocide drafted by the United Nations, which describes it as an attempt "to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group."

NDP MP Leah Gazan rises during question period in the House of Commons on June 7, 2021. (The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick)

The UN definition cites the various forms of genocide — killing members of a group, causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of a group, deliberately inflicting conditions to bring about a group's physical destruction in whole or in part, imposing measures to prevent births and forcibly transferring children from one group to another group.

"[The prime minister] needs to call it for what it is — a genocide," Gazan said.

"To do anything else, to leave it up to debate, is another violent act, particularly against survivors."

'A distraction'

But some experts disagree with using the word to describe the residential school era.

"Technically, from my perspective, it's not a genocide," said Frank Chalk, a history professor and co-founder the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies at Concordia University.

"But the crimes committed are atrocious and probably qualify under crimes against humanity in international criminal law."

Chalk said that in Canada's residential school system he sees evidence of criminal negligence rather than criminal intent — and intent is required by the UN convention on genocide.

Chalk said he prefers to use the term "cultural genocide" — the term the commissioners of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission used in their final report to describe the establishment and operation of residential schools.

He also said the focus should be on implementing Bill C-15 — An Act respecting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples — instead of quibbling over terms.

"I sympathize deeply with the impulse to force the government of Canada to admit that genocide was committed against Indigenous peoples, including in the residential schools," Chalk said.

"But I think it's a distraction from what really needs to be achieved today on behalf of compensation for the descendants of those children who were forced into the residential schools."

'A different kind of genocide'

Fannie Lafontaine, a law professor at the University of Laval who holds a Canada Research Chair on International Criminal Justice and Human Rights, disagrees. She said genocide is the correct word to describe the residential school experience.

Lafontaine said the definition is not limited to massacres and can include events that occur over a long period of time. She pointed to the forced transfer of children from their families to the schools as an example of a genocidal act.

"You can destroy a group by destroying its social fabric, its social unit, and I think this is what Canada has been doing across decades," Lafontaine said.

"Canada has committed a different kind of genocide."

Fannie Lafontaine was the lead author of the legal analysis of genocide for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. (UQAM)

Lafontaine contributed to the 2019 legal analysis for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, which concluded violence against Indigenous women and girls amounts to genocide.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau used those words after he accepted the inquiry's final report and repeated them last week when the national action plan was released.

Lafontaine said there are legal consequences to the government acknowledging genocide — consequences which require full implementation of the inquiry's recommendations and those of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 

"It's structural change," she said. "It's recognizing the damage that colonization has done and undoing that by giving back the power to Indigenous nations."

'Abstaining is a very clear vote'

Gazan said the word "genocide" needs to be used because the term "cultural genocide" does not exist in international law.

Her motion is being tabled three days after the NDP presented another motion asking the government to drop its legal battles against a pair of court rulings involving First Nations children, and to expedite work on identifying and documenting unmarked burial sites at residential schools.

That motion passed 271 to 0 with support from all parties, including many Liberal MPs. Members of the Liberal cabinet abstained from voting.

"Abstaining is a very clear vote," Gazan said.

"It's saying, 'We know what we're doing is wrong and we're going to keep doing it.'"


Olivia Stefanovich

Senior reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a senior reporter for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau based in Ottawa. She previously worked in Toronto, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter at @CBCOlivia. Story tips welcome: olivia.stefanovich@cbc.ca.