[T]he Government will in time reach the end of its responsibility as the Indians progress into civilization and finally disappear as a separate and distinct people, not by race extinction but by gradual assimilation with their fellow citizens.
- Duncan Campbell Scott, Deputy superintendent of the Department of Indian Affairs (1913 to 1932)
When the US legalized same-sex marriage in 2015, Canadians scoffed at Americans who tweeted that they would move to Canada in response, not realizing that it had been legal here for 10 years. When Canada received top marks in a global social progress assessment, we continued our tradition of priding ourselves on being a tolerant, multicultural nation. But this self-satisfied image of progressive tolerance papers over the fact that the Canadian government committed cultural genocide against Indigenous peoples for over a century in residential schools.
In 2015, Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin publicly declared that Canada’s residential school system amounted to cultural genocide. In the same year, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) released its report, which laid bare the horrific details of the atrocities committed against Indigenous children in these institutions.
From the 1870s to 1996, more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children were placed in federally funded schools that had the primary goal of breaking the children from their culture and identity. In the words of John A. Macdonald, the government aimed to transform every Indigenous child from “simply a savage who can read and write” to having the “habits and modes of thought of white men.” The Department of Indian Affairs articulated their policy of assimilation, for “Aboriginal peoples to cease to exist as distinct legal, social, cultural, religious, and racial entities in Canada.”
Attendance at the schools was mandatory, and children were separated from their parents, who often surrendered them only under threat of prosecution. In schools, children were forbidden to speak their primary languages and forced to don school uniforms. The schools, mostly run by members of Christian churches, forced children observe Christian religious practices and taught them to reject the spiritual ways of their parents and ancestors. 
Children also suffered sexual abuse at the hands of staff members, and complaints of sexual abuse were often ignored.  The TRC report states, “[T]he government and churches were well aware of the risk that staff might sexually abuse residential school students. As early as 1886, Jean L’Heureux, who worked as a translator for Indian Affairs and a recruiter for Roman Catholic schools in Alberta, was accused of sexually abusing boys in his care.” There were also disproportionately high death rates among children in the schools. The federal government consistently failed to provide adequate resources to address this crisis, when improvements in housing, nutrition, sanitation, and medical attention were desperately needed.
The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948), to which Canada is a signatory, defines genocide as “the intent to destroy, in whole or part” a group by committing a number of acts, including, killing its members, imposing destructive conditions of life, or, “forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
Though the UN Convention does not explicitly define cultural genocide, the TRC report distinguishes genocide from cultural genocide by the mass killing of a group. However, even at the inception of term genocide in the 1940s, “[c]ulture was inextricably interwoven with a broader assault encompassing the totality of group existence. Cultural genocide inflicts multi-generational trauma and if successful, can destroy a group’s identity entirely. The TRC defines cultural genocide as “the destruction of those structures and practices that allow the group to continue as a group.”
It is a matter of historical record that the government instituted residential schools to achieve exactly what is captured by the TRC’s definition of cultural genocide. There has been hostility in defining the residential school system as a genocide, either because individuals see “cultural” as a civilizing adjective to atrocities, or that genocide is not a productive term.
That debate is for another day. What cannot be disputed is the fact that the residential school system was based on the assumption that European civilization and Christian religions were superior to Aboriginal culture. The government and those instituting the policies did not see Indigenous peoples as equals, or even as equally human. We all need to know what happened in residential schools to understand the systemic injustice faced by Indigenous people today, and to ensure that these policies never recur. Even more importantly, we need to know what happened to ask ourselves a hard question: Have we completely eliminated these thoughts, attitudes, and values from our own society today?
Recognition does not amount to reconciliation. The government’s formal apology in 2008 has to be matched with action. Residential schools are not part of the distant past, the last school only closed in 1996. Methods of working towards reconciliation, as well as the long term effects of residential schools on Indigenous people, are much larger topics than what we can cover in one blog post, so please post your thoughts in comments.
(A group of students and parents from the Saddle Lake Reserve, en route to the Methodist-operated school in Red Deer, Alberta. Woodruff, Library and Archives Canada)
 US, Social Progress Imperative, 2016 Global Progress Index (Washington, DC: Social Progressive Imperative, 2016) at 17. Online: <http://www.socialprogressimperative.org/global-index/>
 Canada, Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future, Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication, 2015) at 2.
 Ibid at 2. Patrick Macklem, Indigenous Difference and the Constitution of Canada, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001) at 57.
 Supra note 2.
 Ibid at 37.
 Ibid at 220.
 Ibid at 37.
 Ibid at 105.
 Ibid at 93.
 Ibid at 99.
 The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide 9 December 1948, 278 UNTS at 280 (entered into force 12 January 1951).
 Supra note 2 at 1.
 Dirk Moses, “Raphael Lemkin, Culture, and the Concept of Genocide” in Donald Bloxham and A. Dirk Moses, eds, The Oxford Handbook on Genocide Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010) 19 at 34.
 Supra note 2 at 1.
 Joseph Brean, “‘Cultural genocide’ controversy around long before it was applied to Canada’s residential schools”, The National Post (10 June 2015), online: <http://news.nationalpost.com/news/canada/cultural-genocide-controversy-has-been-around-long-before-it-was-applied-to-canadas-residential-schools>, Jesse Staniforth, “‘Cultural genocide’? No, Canada committed regular genocide”, The Toronto Star (02 June 2015), online: <https://www.thestar.com/opinion/commentary/2015/06/10/cultural-genocide-no-canada-committed-regular-genocide.html>, Joseph Brean, “‘Cultural genocide’ of Canada’s indigenous peoples is a ‘mourning label,’ former war crimes prosecutor says”, The Globe and Mail (02 June 2015), online: <http://news.nationalpost.com/news/canada/cultural-genocide-of-canadas-indigenous-people-is-a-mourning-label-former-war-crimes-prosecutor-says>
 Supra note 2 at 385.
 Bob Rae, “We’ll get the truth on First Nations, but reconciliation remains elusive”, The Globe and Mail (02 June 2015), online: <http://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/well-get-the-truth-on-first-nations-but-reconciliation-remains-elusive/article24744416/>
 Supra note 2 at 385.