Justin Trudeau Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, giving a speech on missing and murdered Indigenous women in front of Parliament in Ottawa in October 2016. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Challenging Canadian colonialism means challenging Canadian capitalism, argues John Clarke

In May, a seven year old video surfaced showing a male Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officer ‘investigating’ a sexual assault on a young Indigenous woman by barraging her with questions and accusations. “Were you at all turned on during this at all? Even a little bit?” he says on the video, “You understand that when a guy tries to have sex with a female and the female is completely unwilling it is very difficult.” He then tells her she could go to prison for fourteen years if she is lying. This week, it has been reported that the young woman is suing the RCMP officer. It is highly likely she found the courage and support she will need to take this step because of the climate of outrage that has been created by the release of ‘Reclaiming Power and Place: The Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.’

The MMIWG report has shaken the Canadian Establishment by suggesting that the murder and disappearance of thousands of Indigenous women and girls in recent decades constitutes a ‘Canadian genocide.’ It squarely blames this racist and misogynistic violence on “state actions and inactions rooted in colonialism and colonial ideologies.”

The use of the word ‘genocide’ has caused right-wing indignation and liberal discomfort. The increasingly dubious ‘progressive’ credentials of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau were further challenged. Caught between his shallow act of ‘reconciliation’ with Indigenous People and his actual role as head of the state structure that stands accused, he ducked and weaved. After trying to distance himself from the thrust of the report, he acknowledged the accusation of genocide and promised his government would “develop and implement a national action plan to address violence against Indigenous women, girls and LGTBQ and two-spirited people.” There is some reason to take this commitment with a pinch of salt.

Genocide indeed

The validity of the accusation of genocide lies not just in the pervasive violence and neglect inflicted on Indigenous women and girls that has taken thousands of lives but in the colonial context that the report refers to. The truth is that the MMIWG horror is a part of a much larger attack inflicted on Indigenous people over centuries that continues to the present day. It has not merely been a process of ‘cultural genocide,’ although the attempt to crush Indigenous identity has been a central component. Physical extermination has also been employed, as a glance at history and a look at present reality make all too clear.

In Europe, capitalism was established by dismantling the feudal structure and driving the peasants off the land but, in the Americas, it arrived on ships and its land base was secured through the most brutal dispossession of the original inhabitants. Some would have you believe that the process was kinder and gentler here but, in fact, it was thoroughly genocidal and the stolen land the Canadian state was built on is a graveyard of the dispossessed. On Canada’s east coast, the Beothuk of what is now Newfoundland were exterminated to the last human being. In Nova Scotia, the Governor, Edward Cornwallis, declared that,

‘Treaties with Indians are nothing, nothing but force will prevail.’

In 1749, he offered a ten Guinea bounty on the scalps of the Mi’kmaq people and, the following year, raised this to fifty pounds to further incentivise the slaughter. 

The 19th Century saw the clearing of the Canadian portion of the Great Plains of its Indigenous population. They were forced onto reserves and starvation and illness was used to drive down the population and break the capacity to resist. When they did fight back, they faced the North West Canadian Mounted Police, forerunner of the RCMP, the very force whose policing methods I have already illustrated. In 1885, eight resisting Cree were hanged at Battleford, Saskatchewan and Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald ventured the opinion that,

“The executions of the Indians ought to convince the red men that the white man governs.”

On Canada’s west coast, the genocidal process was the basis for deliberate depopulation to facilitate colonisation. In 1862, a smallpox epidemic broke out on Vancouver Island. Indigenous people infected with the disease were driven back to their home communities and the deadly illness was spread catastrophically.  At least 30,000 died, representing 60% of the Indigenous population of British Columbia. That province, unlike the rest of Canada, is built, for the most part, on disputed, unceded land because it was not considered necessary to draw up treaties with a decimated population that could simply be pushed aside.


In the 1940s, the South African government studied Canada’s Indian Act and used it as a guide to assist in the introduction and development of an Apartheid system. First enacted in 1869, this legislation has shaped the relationship of colonial domination presided over by the Canadian state. Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald, stated,

“The great aim of our legislation has been to do away with the tribal system and assimilate the Indian people in all respects with the other inhabitants of the Dominion as speedily as they are fit to change.”

The last phrase is telling, given the previous reference to his desire to ensure that the white man would govern. The colonial strategy was to create a parody of electoral representation, with ‘band councils’ operating under a framework dominated by the federal authorities. Indigenous people were placed in a gulag of impoverished ‘reserves’ so inadequate that it is readily apparent that they were intended only as temporary holding facilities until the work of obliterating Indigenous identity could be completed.

Neither Indigenous identity or resistance were obliterated, however, and supplementary measures were taken. The residential school system was established, as the 19th Century approach to ‘killing the Indian in the child’. By the time the last of these closed in 1996, some 150,000 Indigenous children had been removed from their communities and put through a process of ‘aggressive assimilation’ that was marked by extreme abuse that some 6,000 did not survive.  By the middle of the 20th Century, the main drive to destroy Indigenous identity shifted to a strategy of stealing children from their families and communities and placing them with white foster parents. To this day, the survivors of the ‘Sixties Scoop’ struggle for justice. In recent years, the dominant strategy has shifted to a massively increased rate of incarceration.  Prisons and jails in Canada are described as the ‘new residential schools’ and Indigenous people are now locked away in them at a rate that is ten times greater than the non-Indigenous population.

Justin Trudeau talks a good line on ‘reconciliation’ and tearful apologies for the past are his speciality. However, the colonial reality is not being seriously challenged for all the rhetoric. Conditions for people on reserves remain dire, with atrocious housing and a lack of adequate healthcare and basic services. The off reserve Indigenous population faces massive discrimination and rampant poverty within Canadian society. Many Indigenous communities lack clean water and endure years long ‘boil water advisories.’ In these, despairing conditions, there is an epidemic of Indigenous suicide and self harm, especially among young people.

Challenging capitalism and colonialism

At present, the Trudeau government’s commitment to fossil fuel pipeline expansion over the objections of Indigenous people is being met with growing resistance. I am writing this article to demonstrate the complete validity of the term ‘genocide’ and I will not attempt to present even a brief history of Indigenous resistance in Canada. Suffice it to say that it has been an ongoing element from the very beginnings of European encroachment to the present day that, at times, has generated political crises for Canadian governments and institutions. The MMIWG report itself reflects the fact that Indigenous women and communities have refused to accept the horrible loss of life and the terrible suffering they face. 

Canada, like Israel, can be described as a settler state but the difference is that the process here extends over centuries, has gone much further and exists as part of a broader hemispheric process of colonial domination. A challenge to Canadian capitalism, therefore, must also be a challenge to colonialism that puts Indigenous rights and self-determination at the very heart of the struggle. The authors of the MMIWG report are totally justified in speaking of a Canadian genocide that is rooted in history but that lives in the present day. The whole colonial system that created and perpetuates this genocide must be defeated and destroyed.

John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.