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Critics press Ottawa to recognize wrongs against First Nations as genocide

First Nations students are shown at St. Paul’s Indian Industrial School in Middlechurch, Man., in 1901. Native leaders and human-rights experts are pressing the federal government to recognize that Canada’s treatment of native people constituted genocide.

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First Nations leaders and human rights experts will press the federal government to recognize that Canada's historical treatment of native people, including nutrition experiments conducted on children at aboriginal residential schools, constituted a genocide.

Phil Fontaine, a former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Bernie Farber, a social activist who is the former executive director of the Canadian Jewish Congress, and Michael Dan, a former neurosurgeon turned philanthropist, have been talking with native leaders about the need for Canada to admit that the word applies to the cumulative actions taken by the government against First Nations.

As early as this fall, they could ask the United Nations to apply its definition of genocide to Canada's historical record. This push comes five years after Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized on behalf of the Canadian government for the treatment of children at aboriginal residential schools.

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Mr. Fontaine said he has been trying to elevate the issue so that more Canadians become aware of the history of the First Nations. He said he hopes that the government does not force native leaders to pursue the matter in the courts or at the UN.

When the issue of the residential schools was first made public, "we made the point then that it was important that this chapter in our Canadian history that is unwritten be told to Canadians," said Mr. Fontaine, so that "Canadians would then be able to engage in a conversation with us about this."

Jason MacDonald, a spokesman for Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt, said the government recognizes that there have been dark chapters in the Crown's relationship with First Nations.

"That is why our government apologized for the Indian residential schools policy," said Mr. MacDonald in an e-mail, "and that is why we continue to focus on the work of reconciliation, on improving living conditions for First Nations, and on creating economic opportunities for First Nation communities."

But Fred Kelly, a survivor of a residential school where hungry children were deprived of food so scientists could test the effects of nutritional supplements, said the apology did not close the door on the file. Mr. Kelly said he will be part of the push to have Canada's actions declared a genocide. "Whether people recognize it is genocide officially or unofficially," said Mr. Kelly, "I know that it is."

The UN defines genocide as the intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group through any of a number of means including killing its members, causing them serious mental or physical harm, subjecting them to unsustainable living conditions, preventing births of their children, and forcibly transferring their children to another group.

In 2000, four years after the last residential school closed, the government of Canada adopted a definition of genocide that excluded the line about the forcible transfer of children. Courts have rejected native claims of genocide against Ottawa and the churches because Canada had no law banning genocide while the schools were operating.

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Kathleen Mahoney, a Canadian law professor who was counsel for Bosnia-Herzegovina in its genocide action against Serbia, said the best strategy would be to build a case using the documents buried in federal archives that the government is obligated to turn over to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was established to uncover and tell the truth about what happened at the schools.

The government has provided more than 3.5 million of the documents. And on Aug. 6, teams from the TRC will be allowed into the government archives to gather more of them, especially those relating to the health of former students. But there is much more material outstanding and, with just 11 months left in the TRC's mandate, it is uncertain if the work can be completed in time.

With a report from Bill Curry

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

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