Seeking justice after the genocide of Indigenous peoples in Canada and Guatemala

Published by Brent Patterson on

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Image by Ojibwe artist Isaac Murdoch.

This past month, PBI-Guatemala has been accompanying the Human Rights Law Firm (BDH) at the hearings of a former military officer accused in the Dos Erres massacre and former officers accused in the Diario Militar killings. These hearings concluded in indictments for crimes that took place almost 40 years ago.

The Commission for Historical Clarification in Guatemala found that: “Agents of the state committed acts of genocide against groups of Mayan people.”

Findings of genocide have also been made in Canada.

Between 1883 and 1996, more than 150,000 Indigenous children were taken from their parents and sent to at least 139 “residential schools” as part of a campaign of forced assimilation. As many as 12,000 children may have died in those institutions.

That context has also contributed to the 1,181 murders and/or disappearances of Indigenous women and girls between 1980 and 2012. It is believed the number is more accurately 4,000 to 5,000 Indigenous women who have been killed or gone missing.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission – December 2015

University of Guelph Professor David MacDonald has commented: “There is ample evidence in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission [TRC] final report of state intentions, legislation, actions and legacies of genocide.”

MacDonald adds: “Senator Murray Sinclair [the Chair of the Commission] regularly discussed the Indian Residential Schools system as violating Article 2e and stated that he would have put this in the TRC’s Final Report, had it been permitted.”

Article 2e of the United Nations definition of genocide states: “Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

Sinclair says: “I had written a section for the report in which I very clearly called it genocide and then I submitted that to the legal team and I said, can I say this, or, can we say this? And the answer came back unanimously no, we can’t as per our mandate, because we can’t make a finding of culpability, and that’s very clear. So, we did the next best thing.”

MacDonald notes: “The TRC ultimately concluded that cultural genocide had been committed in the Indian Residential School system, while also making hints throughout the report that the government was culpable of more.”

National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls – June 2019

This Supplementary Report states: “The violence the National Inquiry heard about amounts to a race-based genocide of Indigenous Peoples, including First Nations, Inuit and Métis, which especially targets women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people.”

That report adds: “This genocide has been empowered by colonial structures, evidenced notably by the Indian Act, the Sixties Scoop, residential schools and breaches of human and Indigenous rights, leading directly to the current increased rates of violence, death, and suicide in Indigenous populations.”

Other statements

Additionally, in May 2015, Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin stated that Canada had committed “cultural genocide” against Indigenous peoples. And in April 2013, former Prime Minister Paul Martin stated: “Let us understand that what happened at the residential schools was the use of education for cultural genocide, and that the fact of the matter is — yes it was.”

Notably, the June 2008 apology from then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper for the Indian Residential School system did not use the word genocide, but rather framed this “policy of assimilation” as “a sad chapter in our history.”

Impunity and prosecution

Starting in 2005, the Canadian government began to locate 5,315 alleged abusers, both former employees and students. That effort was not to prosecute them, but to seek their participation in compensation hearings. Fewer than 50 people have been convicted for crimes committed at residential schools.

This past week the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) called for “charges be laid against people still living who are found to be the perpetrators of these crimes, including the members of the religious orders that ran the schools, as well as the governments and the churches that we know to be complicit.”

In Guatemala, a court found the former president of Guatemala, Efrain Rios Montt, guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity. He was convicted in 2013 for ordering the deaths of 1,771 Ixil Maya peoples during his time in office in 1982 and 1983. That conviction was overturned by the Constitutional Court of Guatemala just ten days later.

There are many other perpetrators of genocide in Guatemala. More than 200,000 people were killed during the 1960 to 1996 internal armed conflict in Guatemala, 83% of those victims were Indigenous Mayan.

Dispossession from the land remains a key issue. In Canada, reserves account for just 0.2 per cent of the land. In Guatemala, a handful of powerful families still dominates the economy with the largest 2.5% of the forms occupying more than 65% of the land. There are presently at least 1,000 land conflicts happening in Guatemala.

Canada has recognized eight historical genocides, but not the one in Guatemala nor the one against Indigenous peoples in Canada.

We continue to follow this.

On June 25, a Judge ruled that former Guatemalan Defence Minister Marco Antonio González Taracena would stand trial for enforced disappearance, crimes against the duties of humanity, murder and attempted murder for his role in the disappearance of 183 people during the Guatemalan genocide.


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