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TURTLE ISLAND at the Moonspeaker

The Moonspeaker:
Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...

Errors of Commission

For those of us living in countries officially governed by some version of the english parliamentary system, chances are good that we have seen or read about at least one "royal commission" in our lifetime. These are government-created bodies designated to investigate some controversial topic of the day, usually with a practical view of diverting criticism and hopefully pushing the topic out of the media cycle. This is a practical aspect of their origin in an "order in council," that is a piece of legislation creating it according to something like the canadian Inquiries Act1 that formally emanates from the group of elected members of parliament who are cabinet members. Canadian history buffs can rattle off the names of the more famous commissions, which often received nicknames by the canadian press. Take for example the B&B commission, on the topic of bilingualism and biculturalism rather than bed and breakfasts, or the Bird Commission on the Status of Women. As a general rule, royal commissions gather information for a set period of time by means of subpoenaed witnesses, people who come forward voluntarily, and hired researchers. They then write up a final report summarizing their findings and making recommendations. All of the documentation, from transcripts of hearings to the various reports go into the public record, where canadians especially and now in the internet age the whole world can view the documents. That was the basic process for the three main commissions dealing with Indigenous matters in the settler state called canada between 1990 and 2019: RCAP (started in 1991, final report 1996), TRC (started in 2009, final report 2015), or MMIWG (started in 2016, final report 2019).

The first of these, whose name expands to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples was a response to the embarrassment triggered by the fact that canada's response to Indigenous resistance to the destruction of cemeteries or peaceful occupation of contested lands were met by military force. Indigenous peoples evidently felt their backs were against the wall, and their resistance forced canada's bad colonial record back into the limelight. The mandate of the subsequent RCAP was "to investigate and propose solutions to the challenges affecting the relationship between Aboriginal peoples (First Nations, Inuit, Métis), the Canadian government and Canadian society as a whole."2 The subsequent five volume report included 440 recommendations for how all levels of canadian government and canadians more generally could do their part to put things right and act according to the relationships founded in peace and friendship treaties. Over twenty years later, the majority (at best) of these recommendations have simply been ignored.

UPDATE 2019-06-23 - This isn't just my opinion. If you need to see this from another source written up by an official journalist, see Karl Nerenberg's latest post on the rabble.ca blog, in which he points out that the federal government ignores findings from inquiries like these all the time. Alas I can't recommend rabble.ca as a general source, because of its problematic editorial policies more generally, but Nerenberg is a true gem of a political reporter who does excellent work.

Starblanket 'Symbol of Change' by Darlene Clarke of Peguis First Nation in honour of her sister, 2019. Starblanket 'Symbol of Change' by Darlene Clarke of Peguis First Nation in honour of her sister, 2019.
Starblanket 'Symbol of Change' by Darlene Clarke of Peguis First Nation in honour of her sister, 2019

The second of these is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, and it was no more founded on the government's initiative than RCAP. It was founded to document the history of the Indian residential school system in canada as one of the requirements of the agreement settling a massive court case against the canadian federal government and churches that ran the schools. This is a critical point about the creation of the TRC, and should itself never be forgotten. The federal government of the day tried very hard to elide these facts about it. Despite the problematic second part of its name ("reconciliation"), this was not RCAP 2.0. Far from it. This commission's final report referred bluntly to the canadian government's actions as part of a policy of cultural genocide implemented against Indigenous peoples. Furthermore, the final report included not recommendations but 94 Calls to Action and reiterated on the third page of each volume that it is in the public domain and may be freely reproduced in order to share the truth about the actual impacts and history of these schools. Not the least of these was outright deaths, and many former residential school grounds include several unmarked cemeteries. The testimonies of not only the Indigenous survivors but the blunt statements in federal and school records made the stronger label of "calls to action" broadly acceptable to the canadian public. It was already possible to read about the hair raising basics in part of the narrative of Neu and Therrien's Accounting for Genocide in 2003,3 but it was the hard hitting testimony of thousands about how they were brutalized as children and prevented from learning basic parenting skills that seemed to make a real difference. It has only been four years, but so far the canadian government continues to refuse to fund on-reserve schools at parity with the general funding levels of public schools elsewhere in canada, and despite international censure on top of the call to action in the TRC report refuses to apply "Jordan's principle." This principle is named for Jordan River Anderson of Norway House First Nation, a child who never got to live a day at home before he died because the federal and provincial governments argued incessantly over whose jurisdiction had to foot the bill. The principle is simply that "First Nations children can access all public services in a way that is reflective of their distinct cultural needs, takes full account of the historical disadvantage linked to colonization, and without experiencing any service denials, delays or disruptions because they are First Nations."4

The third of these commissions, which finally started all but on the heels of the TRC after incessant lobbying for at least twenty years and a last minute attempt to completely derail it by so-called "men's rights activists," is the recently completed National Inquiry Into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. The number of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls is vastly, hideously, utterly underestimated. The MMIWG made 124 Calls to Justice, and their calls were on not just governments, police forces, and courts, but also social media, the media more broadly, and the hospitality industry. If this seems a bit strange, I recommend Dr. Pamela D. Palmater's searing opinion piece at the Lawyer's Daily, in which she discusses the hideous treatment that the canadian legal system and media subjected Cindy Gladue to after her death. I had not read or read coverage of the hideous miscarriage of justice in Gladue's case in some time. Evidently I missed quite a bit of it, because this section of Palmater's account left me stunned for days. I quote from the article as republished by rabble.ca.

While the [legal] dissent [in the supreme court case prosecuting Gladue's killer] did go further than the majority, they too missed an important opportunity to speak to the indignity committed against Cindy's body after her death when segments of her vagina were brought into court as an exhibit. Cindy was a life-giving mother of three girls. Her body and her life-giving parts had already suffered a gross violation which led to her death. There was no necessity – in an effort to prosecute her killer – to remove her life-giving parts and put them on display in a courtroom.

I had not read about this before because the prurient and victim-claiming coverage in the media had already sickened me. That the prosecution engaged in such a vicious and disrespectful display is sickening on its face. Even more so for those of us aware of the practice of early colonists who after slaughtering Indigenous women would pause to cut away women's genitalia and affix them to their hats. Then they would go on to things like skinning them to make the infamous "leatherstockings."5 The MMIWG report has been out barely two weeks. The canadian federal government has made some pious noises, while the racist brigade comes out in legions to cry foul because the report refers bluntly to actions that come together as one thing with no qualifiers: genocide. The number of these screamers trying to claim that "genocide" means something else, or that the man who developed the term, Raphael Lemkin, meant something else, has been pathetic and infuriating to hear. But not surprising.

The people struggling to deny that the range of injustices and actions across the spectrum of canadian society from before canada was officially created to this very moment are understandably uncomfortable, of course. They don't want to admit that what is undeniably before them is an ever growing and unavoidable mountain of evidence of not mere errors of commission, but deliberate acts of genocide. For those wondering in the midst of the latest attempt at bafflegab and avoidance of actual action that doesn't continue to implement genocide right now, at this moment what Lemkin defined "genocide" as, here it is.

The crime of genocide involves a wide range of actions, including not only deprivation of life but also the prevention of life (abortions, sterilizations) and also devices considerably endangering life and health (artificial death in special camps, deliberate separation of families for depopulation purposes and so forth). All these actions are subordinated to the criminal intent to destroy or to cripple permanently a human group. The acts are directed against groups, as such, and individuals are selected for destruction only because they belong to these groups. In view of such a phenomenon the terms previously used to describe an attack upon nationhood were not adequate. Mass murder or extermination wouldn't apply in the case of sterilization because the victims not murdered, rather a people was killed through delayed action by stopping propagation. Moreover mass murder does not convey the specific losses to civilization in the form of the cultural contributions which can be made only by groups of people united through national, racial or cultural characteristics.

This quote comes from Raphael Lemkin's 1947 paper "Genocide as a Crime under International Law," published in the American Journal of International Law. Anyone can read his major writings online at Prevent Genocide International's page devoted to Lemkin.6 Perhaps this still seems a stretch somehow, even after reading about how children were taken from their families, Indigenous women and girls are treated as fair game by male predators all over canada, and the still growing scandal of continuing involuntary sterilization of Indigenous women and theft of Indigenous children by "child and welfare services" because they are Indigenous. I would point you then to an infamous quote by former head of the federal department of "Indian and Northern Affairs," Duncan Campbell Scott.

I want to get rid of the Indian problem. I do not think as a matter of fact, that the country ought to continuously protect a class of people who are able to stand alone...
    Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department, that is the whole object of this bill.

Now have a look at the book Accounting for Genocide and then Maureen Lux's Medicine That Walks7 to see what "protection" of Indians consisted of, immediately before and during 1920. Feel free to compare it to Lemkin's definition above, because his point was to make sure that genocide would not happen again, and he knew that the best way to prevent it was to recognize the many subtle practices that could be used to implement it even without a war going on. He understood that many of the more subtle policies were about dehumanization, and that made it all the easier to move on to less subtle policies, or rationalizing persisting in the subtle ones beyond any vague attempt to pretend to be doing something else.

By now I imagine it is more than clear that the royal commissions are not the ones making the errors here, reasonable criticisms of them aside. At this point, I am unsure what else people can try to claim about the Settler Problem in canada. There are at least 658 carefully described forms of action that canadians could do to resolve the Settler Problem. They are practical and many of them build upon one another for a good long term result that in no way would lead to the destruction of settlers in their uniqueness as peoples. Nothing about the recommendations, Calls to Action or Calls to Justice demands that the Settler Problem be resolved by their complete absorption into Indigenous body politics. In fact, they point towards something entirely different, a new way of being here for settlers who will shift from being settlers to Treaty People who act in a good way to honour and embody the treaties with Indigenous peoples, nations and lands in Turtle Island.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2019
Last Modified: Monday, June 17, 2019 0:18:30