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I yield to no one in my fervour to make amends to the native people for violations of treaty rights and other mistreatment, but the phrase “cultural genocide,” as I wrote here last week in reference to the Chief Justice of Canada’s use of it in a speech given in honour of the Aga Khan, is deliberately provocative and sensational.
We might as well accuse Canada and the United States and all countries built on immigration (ultimately almost all countries) of cultural genocide, of the natives or the arrivals, though of course immigration is voluntary. All words bearing the suffix “cide” refer to physical extermination: suicide, homicide, genocide, regicide, etc.
The native people, or First Nations, were here first, but there were not more than a few hundred thousand of them in what is now Canada in the 17th century. They had a Stone Age culture that had not invented the wheel, and which graduated, however brusquely, to more sophisticated levels of civilization, but the culture was not exterminated.
Apart from a few mid-western farming tribes and Pacific and Great Lakes inhabitants of log dwellings, the First Nations did not have permanent buildings or agriculture, metal tools, or knitted fabrics. They were nomads, clothed in hides and skins, living in tents, surviving on fish and game, and usually at war, which included the torture to gruesome death of prisoners from other tribes and nations, including women and children.
They were genius woodsmen and hunters and craftsmen, and had artistic abilities, and I am not suggesting and do not accept that they were anything but the complete natural equal of the arriving Europeans. Some European notables, such as Champlain, were interested in and generally respectful of the native people; some made expedient alliances with them, but generally, traders bought their animal furs for consideration the natives sought, including alcoholic beverages and firearms, and settlers encroached on their land, moving inland from the ocean shores and river banks.
There were certainly unjust provocations by the Europeans. The British promised the natives occupancy of the land between the Ohio River and the Great Lakes, even as they signed the same territory over to the successful American Revolutionists (somewhat as, 135 years later, the British promised Palestine, then occupied by the Turks, simultaneously to the Jews and the Arabs. Selling the same real estate to two different buyers at the same time is complicated on every continent).
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