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Response to Bishop Mark Macdonald’s speech “Cultural Genocide” - 3rd Annual Lecture of the IHOM

18 September 2015
Response to Bishop Mark Macdonald’s speech “Cultural Genocide” - 3rd Annual Lecture of the IHOM


Program Director, Bishop MacDonald, Father Michael Lapsley, Customary Leaders representing indigenous and first nation peoples from across the world, the audience watching this on youtube via live-streaming, honoured guests, Ladies and Gentlemen. All protocol observed.

My role is to be the respondent to the keynote address which has just been so eloquently delivered by Bishop Mark MacDonald. I have been given 8 minutes to respond to his speech. I am more fortunate than the audience today since I have had sight of the Bishop’s speech so that I could prepare my response. This advance notice has not made it any easier since the Bishop’s speech covered over 100 years of pain, and trauma in Canada imposed on the indigenous population - the Canadian Indians - an experience succinctly and accurately captured by two words - cultural genocide. Genocide is usually associated with the physical killing and extermination of people while cultural genocide also sometimes called ‘ethnocide’ kills social cultures through the killing of individual souls.”

This was the experience of the indigenous Indians of Canada - the foundation nation of Canada - the first peoples of Canada. Some have described this experience as the Canadian Holocaust - an experience which has caused Canada to be morally wounded - or in the words of the Bishop, Canada has a “collective soul wound”. Some Canadian Indian parents are still asking for the missing 50 000 children who just did not return from the school.


The context of your speech, Bishop MacDonald, is the findings and recommendations of the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission which barely two months ago completed its work of almost five years of investigation and information gathering about the schooling system for Canadian Indians - better known as The Indian Reservation/Residential Schooling System. It is this place of learning for young indigenous children “the reservation school” which was unfortunately designed to be a place of death and destruction - a Canadian Holocaust - an extermination camp - under the guise of being a school for the education of indigenous children. Or is this too harsh a criticism.


Bishop, in your speech you captured the essence of this Canadian holocaust using the binary polarity of the trajectory of death, juxtaposed with the trajectory of life. Since you are a Bishop I would have expected nothing different in terms of a conceptual framework.

You spoke about the trajectory of death as systemic evil and how our modern sensibilities have been blunted by individualism, so that when we face a reality of the systematic destruction of a community, like that of the Canadian Indian children, we absolve ourselves from all guilt; I did not pull the trigger - I did not abduct the children - I did not mis-educate the children - I did not collude with the education system and perpetuate the systemic evil. I am just an ordinary citizen of the country. I had nothing to do with the Indian Reservation Schooling System. I did not even know that it existed and that it was funded by the Canadian government and supported by the Christian religion. I did not know!

The denial response is not unfamiliar to South African’s who sometimes have a very romantic notion of the mission schools which provided education for the vast majority of the indigenous population of South Africa. The Indian Reservation Schooling System was also a mission school of sorts. However, in the Canadian context, the explicit aim of the missionary led education system for indigenous Indians was “assimilating Native Canadians into European-Canadian society” - an assimilation which turned into a holocaust of extermination. Your Canadian TRC revealed horror stories of what happened at those schools; this included the compulsory sterilization of students as a means of population control and dare I say extermination of first nation people; children were prohibited from (and sometimes punished for) speaking their own languages or practicing their indigenous faiths. The living conditions at these “live-in” or “boarding schools” were atrocious. The Canadian TRC produced overwhelming evidence of widespread neglect, starvation, extensive physical and sexual abuse, and many student deaths related to these crimes. The high mortality rates at these schools makes one think of the school as an extermination camp rather than a place of education, safety and learning. In some schools the death rate of learners was as high as 69%. As one Canadian commentator said: Schools had graveyards and not playgrounds.

This is the trajectory of Death to which your paper refers. And you made the point that consequently, Canada is a morally wounded society.


You then took us to the trajectory of life - supposedly the up side of a TRC process. You ask the question: Can there be life in death?

Let me pause for just a moment and reflect on the purpose of TRC’s. Ironically, a TRC is not so much a process about truth finding nor about reconciliation. Instead, the real power of a TRC is that it limits the number of lies a nation can tell about itself in the public space.

Just like South African’s and our TRC process, Canadians can no longer live in the paradise created by the silent chapters of history. National amnesia about human rights atrocities becomes a thing of the past. No longer can a society deny the reality of state sponsored genocide inflicted on its own people - its first nation people - the original people of the land. We as South Africa have our own ghosts and silences in this regard.

I try to keep it simple and straight forward - genocide is nothing other than state sponsored murder - in this case - murder in the name of progress, civilisation and Christianity. Sounds too similar to the crusades of the middle ages, something the Bishop would know well from his church history text books. The papal doctrine of Discovery (which I call the Doctrine of Conquest) provided the theological justification for the extermination of indigenous peoples in many countries. It’s the same doctrine that inspired the conquest of the indigenous peoples of South Africa - a bloody conquest - first by the Dutch - then by the British - and then by a combination of the Dutch and British - A conquest which lasted for over 400 years and ended as recently as 1994 (20 years ago) with the advent of democracy in South Africa. Not unlike Canada, the colonial armies of South Africa pretended to be doing God’s work - and at any and all cost believed that they were "saving souls", and "civilizing" the savage.

In your trajectory of life you argue that there is indeed life in the midst of death and that the survivor holds the key to the restoration and rehabilitation of the perpetrator. The risk I face is to romanticise and stereotype indigenous culture. But it must be said that indigenous culture, in general, is not premised on vengeance and hatred. I am still to hear of an indigenous culture proactively conquering a foreign nation and subjugating that people with a bible in one hand and a gun in another hand. Instead indigenous culture is welcoming of strangers - often to the detriment of indigenous people.


Let me conclude my response by identifying one lesson and one challenge we can learn from the Canadian TRC as you have presented it in your speech.

The lesson to learn is that of bravely breaking the silence regarding the cultural genocide of indigenous people. We, like Canada, must be brave and deal with the elephant in the room - namely the silence about the consistent attempts of colonial and modern regimes to exterminate first nation people - indigenous people. This is a global challenge. The genocide of indigenous people is not an isolated occurrence. It was and seems to remain part of 21st century colonial strategy still linked to the Doctrine of Discovery.

According to some commentators, for most Canadians, the silence about the Indian Reservation Schooling System has been broken. The experiences of generations of Aboriginal people who attended residential schools and suffered cultural genocide have remained a silent chapter of Canadian history, until now.

By contrast and implication there is a challenge for South Africa. Our TRC was political in orientation and focussed on 33 years of politically-motivated human rights atrocities. What about the other 433 years of suffering by our indigenous people and their descendants. By contrast, the Canadian TRC focused on cultural atrocities as experienced by the indigenous people of Canada. South Africa has not yet dealt with the atrocities experienced by its indigenous people - the Khoisan people and their descendants of whom the vast majority constitute the contemporary coloured population.

It was former President Mbeki who in his now famous “I am an African” speech said:

“I owe my being to the Khoi and the San whose desolate souls haunt the great expanses of the beautiful Cape - they who fell victim to the most merciless genocide our native land has ever seen, they who were the first to lose their lives in the struggle to defend our freedom and independence and they who, perished in the result.”

Well Mr former President, we did not all perish. Some of us are still here. The Khoisan people of South Africa are alive and well. We are not only to be found in a remote village on the edges of the Kalahari desert. We are in the cities. We are in your government. We are in your schools. We are here.

Even though many of us have been assimilated into a different culture, speak a different language and have a different religion to that of our ancestors, the blood of our Khoisan ancestors run through our veins.

Ironically, democracy in South Africa created the space for the descendants of the Khoi and Bushmen people - the descendants of the first nation - the aboriginal and indigenous people of South Africa - to re-assert their indigenous identity. And for that we can only thank the current ruling party. In fact, the ruling party has been gracious to the Khoi and San people and have made them the centre piece of the national identity of the South Africa nation. The national coat of arms of South Africa shows two bushmen in friendly embrace and the inscription comes from an ancient Khoi language which reads - Diverse nations unite.

I suspect now is an opportune time - a Kairos moment if you will - for South Africa to have a cultural (and economic) TRC and like Canada face the cultural genocide which it has experienced so that we can complete the healing process and rebuild a cohesive nation.


Allow me to conclude: On behalf us all, let me thank you Bishop MacDonald for an insightful reflection on the impact of the Canadian TRC and the lessons it holds for the rest of the world.

As we rapidly move through a post modern society - where human rights and respect for the dignity of others is the dominant criteria for engagement, let us not forget that we remain human - we remain vulnerable to doing harm to each other - as you have reminded us. We are sinners saved by grace. In the case of South Africa, four hundred years later and in the case of Canada 100 years later, we must ask the question: Who is the savage? This must surely be the moral and spiritual crisis of our time! May the grace of God, the creator of our souls and destiny be our portion now and forever. I thank you.


In March 1998, the government made a Statement of Reconciliation – including an apology to those people who were sexually or physically abused while attending residential schools – and established the Aboriginal Healing Foundation.

The Foundation was provided $350 million to fund community-based healing projects focusing on addressing the legacy of physical and sexual abuse at Indian residential schools. In its 2005 budget, the Canadian government committed an additional $40 million to continue to support the work of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation.

On November 23, 2005, the Canadian government announced a $1.9 billion compensation rrr so if they paid, why then bother with a trc package to benefit tens of thousands of former students at native residential schools. National Chief Phil Fontaine of the Assembly of First Nations said the package covers, "decades in time, innumerable events and countless injuries to First Nations individuals and communities." Justice Minister Irwin Cotler called the decision to house young Canadians in church-run residential schools "the single most harmful, disgraceful and racist act in our history."

On June 11, 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a formal apology, on behalf of the sitting Cabinet, in front of an audience of Aboriginal delegates, and in an address that was broadcast nationally on the CBC, for the past governments' policies of assimilation.[44]

The lasting impact that the schools have had is also manifested in the rate of drug and alcohol abuse among survivors

Many survivors of the residential schools also suffer from historic trauma (the above-mentioned “collective soul wound.”[58] Historic trauma explains the Aboriginal trauma more completely than residential school syndrome.[58] It is the idea that the “military, economic, and cultural conquest of people aboriginal to the American continents was a form of genocide,” and that, much like in the inter-generational trauma caused by the Holocaust, the Aboriginal

Role of TRC: The national event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission allows the survivors to share their stories and put them on record.[59]

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