In 1994, the United Nations defined cultural genocide as “Any action which has the aim or effect of depriving [an ethnic group] of their integrity as distinct peoples, or of their cultural values or ethnic identities.” By this definition, 20th century Canadian laws and government policies qualify as one of the most flagrant and destructive cultural genocides of modern times. For more than a century, the Canadian government officially required all Indigenous Canadian children to attend Christian, English-speaking schools, so that the children could assimilate to European Canadian culture. Law enforcers had freedom to take Indigenous Canadian children from their families and send them to schools hundreds of miles away (in effect, kidnapping them). In addition to being underfunded and conducive to high rates of sexual abuse, these schools were institutionalizations of a cultural genocide campaign: they were explicitly designed to weaken Indigenous Canadian languages and traditions. In Indian Horse, Saul Indian Horse attends an indigenous school called St. Jerome’s, where he experiences firsthand the viciousness of the cultural genocide that took place in Canada.
By portraying the Indigenous Canadian cultural genocide from the perspective of a small child, Wagamese emphasizes the terror and chaos that it caused. Saul’s siblings, Benjamin and Rachel, are abducted from their communities at an early age with no explanation given, other than that they’re required by law to go to school. Benjamin and Rachel’s kidnappings cause Saul’s parents tremendous grief, which leads to their becoming alcoholics. Wagamese portrays Saul’s abduction, which occurs a few years later, as a confusing, disorienting event. Two men drag Saul away from his dying grandmother, Naomi, and send him to St. Jerome’s. The men make no effort to take care of Naomi, and they seem to have no hesitation about taking a child away from his dying grandparent. This suggests that the men are not motivated by a desire to help nor tempered by any sympathy for the family. Rather, it seems, at best, that they’re following orders, and, at worst, actively trying to destroy the Fish Clan’s family structure. At the time, the Canadian government offered many justifications for its education policies, usually suggesting that the policies were designed for Indigenous Canadians’ own good. By depicting the effects of these policies from a child’s point of view, Wagamese cuts through the government’s claims and shows the policy for what it really was: a mass kidnapping scheme, which had the effect of destroying Indigenous Canadian families, and inevitably weakening Indigenous Canadian culture.
Saul and his Indigenous Canadian peers are sent to St. Jerome’s for one reason: to un-learn the culture they grew up with. He and his classmates are told that they’re going to learn the English language and the Christian religion. The teachers are constantly talking about the importance of English and Christianity, but Saul never says what, if anything, he learned about these subjects. Indeed, few of the teachers at the school seem to take Christianity seriously at all. Instead of practicing love and mercy, the teachers brutally beat their children, and in some cases sexually abuse them. Eventually, it becomes obvious that the only real “lesson” the teachers teach is the inferiority of Indigenous Canadians and Indigenous Canadian culture. The students are tortured and abused until they agree to reject their old languages and customs and become meek and subservient to their white instructors. In effect, St. Jerome’s wipes out Indigenous Canadian culture and teaches Indigenous Canadian students to fear and obey white Canadians.
The laws that brought about cultural genocide in Canada are especially frightening because they were framed as being unambiguously good for Indigenous Canadians: they promised to bring religion, language, and “civilization” to the native inhabitants of the land. The cultural critic Walter Benjamin said it best: “There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”
Cultural Genocide ThemeTracker
Cultural Genocide Quotes in Indian Horse
So we hid from the white men. Benjamin and I developed the quick ears of bush people. When we detected the drone of an engine we knew to run. We'd grab the old lady's hand and scuttle into the trees and find a place to secret ourselves away until we knew for certain that there was no danger.
She smiled again with the same ghastly lack of feeling. “At St. Jerome's we work to remove the Indian from our children so that the blessings of the Lord may be evidenced upon them.”
We'd never seen anyone so composed, so assured, so peaceful. Something in her bearing reminded us about where we'd come from. We surrounded her like acolytes and that enraged the nuns. They thought Sheila was thumbing her nose at them and they set out to break her.