'Then Pierre Trudeau, Jean Chrétien ... participated in genocide': Canadians want former PMs to pay for residential school tragedies

The National Residential School Crisis Line offers emotional support and crisis referral services for residential school Survivors and their families. Call the toll-free Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419. This service is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

(Left) Indigenous children seen making their beds in a residential school. (Top right) NDP member of Parliament for Winnipeg Centre Leah Gazan rises in the House of Commons. (Bottom right) Former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau answers questions at a podium
The Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement has recognized 139 residential schools across Canada. (Credit: Getty Images/Canadian Press)

Canada's House of Commons has unanimously passed a motion in favour of having the federal government recognize that its residential schools were an act of genocide.

The news has sparked encouragement from across the country, but also calls to action across social media to hold those accountable for the acts that have harmed Indigenous peoples, such as former prime ministers Jean Chrétien and the late Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Others, such as PPC Leader Maxime Bernier, are also questioning the use of the word "genocide," as they downplay the atrocities that took place at residential schools between the 1870s to the closure of the final state-run establishment in 1996.

According to the United Nations, genocide is the "intent to destroy in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group."

As of October 2022, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation's student memorial register has 4,126 children that are listed, with the number of fatalities expected to increase with research efforts underway. A 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report concluded that schools performed "cultural genocide" through acts of sexual and physical abuse, in addition to malnutrition and poor living conditions.

The latest motion in the House of Commons was introduced by Leah Gazan, the NDP member of Parliament for Winnipeg Centre. A similar motion was put forward in June 2021, but did not receive unanimous consent. The news Thursday comes after Pope Francis described the acts at residential schools as a genocide, following his trip to Canada in the summer.

"Today I lift up survivors, families, and communities who have sacrificed so much in order for people across Canada to know the truth; that what happened in residential schools was a genocide. I’m grateful to parliamentarians who unanimously passed my motion recognizing the truth of Canada’s history,” said Gazan in a statement.

“I look forward to working with the government to ensure the will of Parliament is honoured by formally recognizing residential schools as a genocide. Survivors deserve no less."

The passing of the motion is being applauded as a critical step, one of many that's been in the spotlight ever since hundreds of unmarked graves of Indigenous children were discovered across Canada in the summer of 2021.

With Canada's shameful history toward Indigenous peoples, many are calling for more actions to be taken. In the future, some believe that in turn "genocide" should be pluralized, because of the dozens of unique Indigenous populations that were stripped of their cultures.

The news has also sparked questioning as to how Canada will take steps forward in distancing itself from those who were responsible for the neglect of Indigenous populations. For example with then Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development Jean Chrétien and Prime Minister Trudeau, who in 1969, introduced The White Paper.

The White Paper drew backlash, after it proposed to abolish legal documents relating to Indigenous peoples in Canada, such as the Indian Act, while looking to eliminate treaties, as well as fully assimilate all “Indians” into the Canadian state. While the White Paper was ultimately withdrawn in 1970, residential schools continued in Canada until 1996.