In Canada, the Indigenous Peoples Act refers to the indigenous peoples and groups’ legal traditions, customs, and practices. Canadian indigenous law provides for certain constitutionally recognized rights to land and traditional customs. Lee Maracle’s novel Celia’s Song looks at the settler-colonial context from the standpoint of an Indigenous community. These people serve it by relying on the profound pearls of wisdom and insights of its traditional healing practices that can be identified as constituting the Indigenous law. Canadian law plays a substantial role in the cultural genocide of indigenous people, creating residential schools in the past. In Celia’s Song community of settlers resists cultural genocide, by following their traditions punishing a criminal in the story of Amos.
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One of the most terrible political charges that can be brought today against States, political regimes, or individual militarized groups, including terrorist ones, is the accusation of genocide. Despite the existence of a clear legal consolidation of the essence and content of the concept of genocide, the disputes around the use of it for evaluating specific actions not only do not stop but, on the contrary, intensify. At the same time, attempts to shift the emphasis to the political and propaganda side are increasing. Recently, particular interest has begun to manifest itself concerning the so-called cultural genocide, when it is not about physical destruction but about undermining the cultural foundations of an ethnic, racial, or religious community.
However, the current Government of Canada still cannot avoid responsibility for the mistakes of the past and the development of a new, more effective policy for the integration of Canadian society. In this context, one of the most painful topics in the evaluation of the activities of boarding schools for Indians. In the late ninetieth century, Canada government thought that Euro-Canadian language and culture and the Christian religion were exceeding to all other cultural and religious traditions and these beliefs pervaded residential schools. The first Prime Minister of Canada, John MacDonald, clearly formulated the essence of the state policy, which is undoubtedly a cultural genocide by today’s standards. It was announced that the children of the Indians should be protected as much as possible from the influence of their parents, and the only way to do this was to place them in centralized craft schools, where they would acquire the habits and way of thinking of a white man. Children were torn from their parents, who often surrendered them only under the threat of prosecution (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada 41). In other words, the main goal was to destroy any moral, cultural and spiritual connection with the indigenous culture and with the corresponding community.
To achieve this goal, a course was taken to eradicate the cultural and linguistic traditions of the aborigines. That is why communication in native languages in boarding schools was strictly prohibited. Correspondence with the family was allowed exclusively in English, which the students did not initially speak. It was mandatory for all students to receive a new European name, a new date of birth, communion, and then strict adherence to Christian religious traditions. Older and younger brothers and sisters were separated from each other (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada 44). The memories of former students and eyewitnesses indicate that violation of school discipline rules was punishable by severe corporal punishment.
Official data released in Canada only in the twentieth century shed light on the real state of affairs in most closed schools for aborigines. Thus, great difficulties in the functioning of residential schools were associated with problems of their financing. The Federal Government did not allocate enough funds to organize education and create favorable conditions for children to live; as a result, economical work on school maintenance was carried out mainly by the students themselves. The lack of adequate conditions for the maintenance of children led to a high level of morbidity and mortality. The tragic consequence of the cultural genocide of indigenous peoples in Canada was the loss of part of the aboriginal languages. The overwhelming number of preserved languages are currently under threat of extinction. The loss of language skills has led to the disappearance of many monuments of oral folk artworks of folklore and folk epic.
It should be noted that in recent years, the Canadian Government has been doing a lot to mitigate this trauma. Back in March 1998, a “Reconciliation Statement” was published, in which, in particular, official apologies were made to those people who were subjected to sexual or physical violence in boarding schools. A process called “Alternative Dispute Resolution” was launched, providing out-of-court compensation and psychological assistance to students of residential schools. At present, the number of state and charitable foundations, educational and cultural programs aimed at restoring the ethnocultural heritage of the country’s first inhabitants is growing in Canada. The revival of ethnic identity and the restoration of native languages and culture are promoted by large Aboriginal communities that have received the right to their governing bodies.
Despite this, by many indicators, the indigenous peoples of Canada remain genuinely disadvantaged. Tuberculosis thrives in the poor socio-economic conditions of the Canadian north, where people live in overcrowded houses, eat poorly, smoke a lot, and where diseases such as diabetes are commonplace. The low level of education of the youth of the Indian and Arctic tribes of Canada has numerous negative consequences: unemployment, poverty, limited social and economic opportunities, crime, health problems, and lack of housing.
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The historical practice of the Canadian Government of removing indigenous youth from their homes and sending them to boarding schools, where tens of thousands of children suffer from abuse, malnutrition, poor-quality education, diseases, is nothing but cultural genocide. Such an accusation was made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which recently completed a multi-year study, to the Government of the country. Celia’s Song by Lee Maracle pictures the horrible scars of the colonial struggle of indigenous people.
The central theme of Celia’s Song is child sexual abuse and overall horrible regard toward the young. It is a story about an Stó:lō congregation that gathers alongside to resist this terrible problem. The peculiar feature of the literary work is that it has multiple narrators. This way of telling the story invokes the reader to become an eyewitness to violence in a way and to recognize the significance testifying has for infancy sexual abuse. This is also of particular importance because the problem of sexual, physical, and psychological violence permeated boarding schools for indigenous residents.
For years, boarding school students, separated from their families, could not build families themselves after growing up. Forcibly deprived of their native language, culture, traditions, and beliefs, they felt like strangers among their own after boarding school. Many children received psychological trauma, which had a direct and irreversible impact on the formation of their personality and attitude to the world around them. In the book, the character Amos was involuntarily put into one of the residential schools where he was sexually abused at a young age (Maracle 255). This psychological trauma led Amos to abuse little girl Shelley.
The actions of Canadian legislation concerning indigenous children have separated Amos from the duties and obligations to the community and culture in which the man was born and raised, even for a small amount of time. The trauma caused by boarding schools plays a fundamental role in the formation of people who have gone through it. The consequences of the residential schooling rules can be seen even nowadays. Thus, higher rates of risk of obesity, early-onset insulin resistance, and diabetes are seen among Indigenous peoples in Canada. In part, the lengthy malnutrition endured by many residential school survivors is the reason for these issues.
The work of Lee Makawa, Celia’s Song, is an example of how aborigines support the law of indigenous people and try to resist cultural genocide. Therefore, after the news of the horrific act that Amos committed against little Shelly, her family does not turn to the law enforcement agencies. Instead, a man who has committed a crime is forced to participate in a dance ritual, which can be counted as a way to restore the community and its culture. In this way, the laws and customs of the indigenous people are maintained.
The description of Amos’ passage of the ritual, dance, and death, can be considered a healing and redemption process. Thus, the author distinguishes between the Canadian legal system and the understanding of the indigenous people about how crimes are punished. For Stella, “the laws of white people are crazy” and “she just wants to know the law of her grandmothers, who will tell her what to do” (Maracle 149). For a woman, as for most residents, the judicial system is nothing more than an unjustified concern for a criminal who does not deserve it.
The past policy of the Government of Canada was aimed at the complete eradication of the ethnic and cultural characteristics of indigenous peoples, which caused irreparable damage to their cultural and historical heritage. A special role was assigned to the system of closed boarding schools, the activities of which became one of the most tragic moments in the history of the country. Thus, it can be concluded that Canadian law contributed to cultural genocide. The example of people withstanding it can be found in the book Celia’s Song by Lee Maracle. In the book the author gives a story of the community that resists the law by following and preserving their tradition when choosing a punishment for the criminal. Currently, in Canada, the emphasis is on the gradual transformation of reservations into self-governing territories while securing for their exemption from obligations imposed by national legislation that promotes the preservation of traditional political and cultural practices. When the mechanism of intergenerational transmission of ethnocultural traditions is broken, folklore traditions perform a leading function in the preservation, development, and revival of traditional culture, helps people to go back to their roots.
Despite the horrific contribution of cultural genocide, modern society must move forward. Nowadays, the constitutional law of the country combines the legal aspects of common law and legal sources, practices, customs and traditions of indigenous peoples (Borrows 33). This does not mean that people should forget about those tragic events, but healing processes should be applied for a better future. Recovery of traditional beliefs, values and language lost through generation is a key component for healing. One of the most effective solutions can be the education of the population on the topic of cultural genocide.
However, this process differs from the modern way of education among indigenous peoples. Traditional training is based on practice, direct training in skills, and values, and respect for culture and customs. Borrows also notes that the government must create legal courses that allow Indigenous peoples to participate in the economic and social spheres of life (44). These features are taken into account and reflected in Canadian education, contributing to the return of indigenous culture and identity.
Traditional culture plays a vital role in society in the formation of the national consciousness of the younger generation. In the spiritual revival of the people, the stimulating factor today should be the restoration of their national culture, a broad appeal to traditional folk art. A special place in the education of young people is occupied by musical folklore, the most important part of which is the song creativity of the people. It reflects the whole life of a person in a diverse and deep way, from birth to death, reveals his spiritual beauty and wealth. In musical folklore, the eternal aspirations of the people for good and truth, for light and happiness are reflected.
Speaking about the traditions of indigenous peoples, customs, and rituals, it is crucial to understand that this is not just a set of ingrained habits, foundations of practical and social activities; it is also a national heritage, a folk culture that is passed down from generation to generation. Remembering and preserving traditions, a person receives unshakable and stable support, and pays tribute to the past. However, it is not enough to know about the existence and observe some traditions, and it is essential to understand their meaning, to know the history of a particular rite, a particular custom.
Borrows, John. Law’s Indigenous Ethics. University of Toronto Press. 2019.
Maracle, Lee. Celia’s Song. Cormorant Books Incorporated. 2014.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. “Canada’s Residential Schools: The History, Part 1, Origins to 1939: The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.” McGill-Queen’s University Press, vol. 1, 2015.