ReBraiding Frayed Sweetgrass for Niijaansinaanik: Understanding Canadian Indigenous Child Welfare Issues as International Atrocity Crimes

The unearthing of the remains of Indigenous children on the sites of former Indian Residential Schools (“IRS”) in Canada has focused greater attention on anti-Indigenous atrocity violence in the country. While such increased attention, combined with recent efforts at redressing associated harms, represents a step forward in terms of recognizing and addressing the harms caused to Indigenous peoples through the settler-colonial process in Canada, this note expresses concern that the dominant framings of anti-Indigenous atrocity violence remain myopically focused on an overly narrow subset of harms and forms of violence, especially those committed at IRSs. It does so by utilizing a process-based understanding of atrocity and genocide that helps draw connections between familiar, highly visible, and less recognized forms of atrocity violence, which tend to be overlapping and mutually reinforcing in terms of their destructive effects. This process-based understanding challenges the neocolonial, racist, and discriminatory attitudes reflected in the drafting and interpretation of the Genocide Convention and other atrocity laws that ignore the lived experiences of subjugated groups. Utilizing this approach, this note argues that, as applied to Indigenous populations, Canada’s longstanding discriminatory child welfare practices and policies represent an overlooked process of anti-Indigenous atrocity violence. Only by understanding current child welfare challenges facing Indigenous communities as interwoven with longstanding anti-Indigenous atrocity processes, such as the IRS system, can we understand what is at stake for affected communities and fashion appropriate remedies in international and domestic law.