In accordance to Canadian national census that was carried out in 1995, it was found that Aboriginals constituted about 1,016,335 people who roughly translated into about 3.8% of the total Canadian population (Statistics Canada, 1995 cited in Edwards and Edwards, 1998). The main sub-groups that make up Aboriginal community are North American Indians, Métis, and Inuit.
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North American Indians are registered under the Indian Act while Métis occupy the western province of the country and are as a result of inter-marriage between French Canadians and Indian women.
However, Métis on overall has not been integrated into Euro-Canadian culture (Edwards and Edwards, 1998). Lastly, Inuit constitute racially and culturally distinct group from Indians and are not covered by the Indian Act (Edwards and Edwards, 1998).
Within the jurisdictions of Canada, evidences are numerous that social and economic conditions for Aboriginals are far behind as compared to other Canadian groups.
In a report that was prepared by the Royal Commission, it was identified that Aboriginals are more likely to face “inadequate nutrition, substandard housing and sanitation, unemployment and poverty, discrimination and racism, violence, inappropriate or absent services, and subsequent high rates of physical, social and emotional illness, injury, disability and premature death” (Barth, 2008, p.104).
Many social studies and indicators that have been carried in Canada indicate that Aboriginals in the entire country occupy lower socio-economic levels as compared to other groups of Canada (Barth, 2008).
For instance, in 1991, when the overall unemployment in the country stood at 9.9%, for Aboriginals, it was 24.6% (Barth, 2008). Aboriginals who rely on social-welfare assistance are estimated to be 41.1% as compared to 8.1% of the general Canadian population (Barth, 2008). Moreover, only 3% of Aboriginals have been able to graduate from University as compared to 12% of the non-Aboriginal groups (Barth, 2008).
Among the Aboriginals, infant mortality rate is 2-3 times more than of the rest population while life expectancy for Aboriginals is 10% lower that the general population of Canada (Barth, 2008).
Family violence among the Aboriginals is one of the highest estimated to be 80 percent and out of this 87% of women experience physical injury while 57 percent are victims of sexual abuse (Barth, 2008). Royal Commission Report on Aboriginal suicide has correlated the numerous suicidal incidences among Aboriginals to mental illness, family problems, socio-economic factors and cultural stress (Barth, 2008).
Aboriginal constitute a group that has undergone and experienced historical injustices since the days of colonialism. As it was evidenced in the report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginals, trauma among this population is associated to historical physical, emotional, and psychological torture that was met on Aboriginals.
Surprisingly, these actions were ‘institutionalized’ in that key government agencies and structures participated in either formulating or implementing policies to injury the Aboriginals.
Motivated by these historical events in the lives of Aboriginals this research paper intends to investigate and explore the issue of Trauma among Aboriginals: how it originated, how it was facilitated, the impacts manifested through transgenerational; transfer of trauma and how the current policy-programs intends to address the issue of trauma among these people.
Methodology to be employed will largely be of literature review using both primary and secondary sources in terms of information and relevant statistical data.
Colonialism and Aboriginal land issue
When the colonialist invaded the Aboriginal land, theirs was a quest for land as it was deemed a vital economic resource. They violated the Aboriginal understanding of land as a resource. For the Aboriginals, strong ties were attached to the land and for them land not only was a source of sustenance but was also part of their culture and spirituality (The Truth Commission into Genocide in Canada, 2001).
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Subsequent resistances by Aboriginals were met with harsh reactions from the colonialist where at the same time the colonists violated the treaties they had signed with Aboriginals. These colonialist behaviors saw Aboriginals separated from their lands; they were driven to isolated reserves.
In general, Aboriginals became ‘homeless’ in their land. What was to follow in the future decades was horrible; Aboriginals became victims of torture, they were forced to abandon their families, their culture and their identity and in subsequent they were required to adopt the ‘civilized’ culture through education and religion.
Assimilation became the guise in which systematic torture against the Aboriginals took place, tendencies to exterminate them became widely acknowledged and approved, the institution of law and other critical protection institutions became part of this broad scheme to eliminate the Aboriginals (The Truth Commission into Genocide in Canada, 2001).
Religion, the only hope to go to in times of sorrow was not left behind, in fact, clergymen and priests became the instruments in which systematic torture of Aboriginals took place; in wider sense, the clergymen became killers, torturers, and rapists (The Truth Commission into Genocide in Canada, 2001).
They intentionally infected innocent young Aboriginals with diseases through the boarding school systems and hospitals, which were largely run and managed by churches (The Truth Commission into Genocide in Canada, 2001). In short, Aboriginal historical injustices came from all corners of the society; it was as if everyone was determined to eliminate them.
Intergenerational trauma among the Aboriginals
Aboriginals remain a community characterized by a history of negative treatment. This has largely been fostered through policies and programs that in their content formulation reflected an ambition to culturally suppress, oppress, and marginalize Aboriginals.
The result of these has been risk factors that have accompanied the Aboriginals since ever (Crooks, Chiodo, Thomas, Burns and Camillo, 2010). More so, these policies and programmes in implementation have aspired to neutralize the protective factors that for a long time formed natural part of traditional Aboriginal cultures. The lethal and mental disease that Aboriginals have been subjected to has been intergenerational trauma.
Intergenerational trauma constitutes transmission of emotional injuries from one generation to the next and the transfer of the trauma occurs at interpersonal level (Crooks, Chiodo, Thomas, Burns and Camillo, 2010).
Main actors are parents who pass it to their children that in most cases may take place at intergenerational level from a generation of parents to a generation of children (Crooks, Chiodo, Thomas, Burns and Camillo, 2010). When a large group or numbers of people become victims of this, the impact further affects larger group or community (Crooks, Chiodo, Thomas, Burns and Camillo, 2010).
Intergenerational trauma among the Aboriginals is associated with harsh historical events in their lives.
For instance authors Crooks, Chiodo, Thomas, Burns and Camillo (2010) note that Aboriginals as the people have been victims who have experienced significant number of losses for a relative long period of time in which majority of Aboriginals have been forced to under unwilling radical changes and displacements as a result of colonization and aggressive Federal assimilative policies.
Accounting how the Aboriginals have been victims of historical losses the author observes that the group has lost many things that formed part of their lives and note that Aboriginals have lost their land, their language, their cherished culture, and their overall spiritual life (Crooks, Chiodo, Thomas, Burns and Camillo, 2010). Further, Aboriginals are seen to have greatly lost their traditional strong families and family ties.
Their population has reduced through early and intentional deaths. They have lost their traditional revered virtues of respect, and trust and painfully have lost respect for the elders of the community’s elders. To Aboriginals elders constitute the source of the community’s wisdom, culture, identity and continuity has been lost (Crooks, Chiodo, Thomas, Burns and Camillo, 2010).
The effect of these losses among the Aboriginals has, in turn, contributed to acceleration of higher percentages of numerous emotional and behavioral problems. Today, majority of Aboriginals experience prevalent instances of feelings of sadness, shame, anxiety, loss of concentration, isolation from other people, loss of sleep, and enormous rage (Crooks, Chiodo, Thomas, Burns and Camillo, 2010).
The current generation of the Aboriginals remembers this events and happenings as if they happened yesterday, and they are purely fresh in their minds a situation that has led to problems with coping strategies (Crooks, Chiodo, Thomas, Burns and Camillo, 2010).
Observation made is that coping difficulties among the victims has largely resulted in overwhelming feelings of fear, anxiety, and helplessness that in turn has led to deviant behaviors such as high rates of alcoholism, family discord and high rates of suicide (Crooks, Chiodo, Thomas, Burns and Camillo, 2010).
The Indian Act of 1876 and creation of residential schools
This is the act that was published as a public and government policy, which aimed at establishing and instituting the federal government as the ‘guardian’ of the Aboriginal people (Hulchanski, Campsie, Chau, Hwang and Paradis, 2009).
As a result of this act, there followed widespread establishment of artificial settlement for the Aboriginals where at the same time there was wide segregation of Aboriginals into groups that were only defined by authorities outside existing community networks (The Truth Commission into Genocide in Canada, 2001).
Within the segregated communities the government went ahead and created authorities together with hierarchy and decision-making authorities which in great measure did not respect or recognize traditional values and practices of the Aboriginal people (The Truth Commission into Genocide in Canada, 2001).
The act, in essence, perpetuated unstable and inequitable programming and delivery of support services largely to Aboriginals who lived off-reserves and in urban areas.
The act through its tendency to create artificial separations and introduction of external control over relations between family members largely within Aboriginal communities and across people, the act effectively and in systematic way isolated community members from one another (Hulchanski, Campsie, Chau, Hwang and Paradis, 2009).
What was evident with this act was the fact that the Canadian government instituted mechanisms, including the religious institutions to pursue ‘efforts’ of transforming and assimilating the Aboriginal communities.
As such, between 1840 and 1983, over 100,000 Aboriginal children were put in the residential school system and the intention was to carry out assimilation, segregation, and integration of the Aboriginals into mainstream Canadian society (Hulchanski, Campsie, Chau, Hwang and Paradis, 2009).
The overall characteristics of this act was that Aboriginal children were separated from their families for a long period of time and as a result the children ended up losing their language, culture, and spiritual beliefs as well as a sense of belonging to a family or kinship network (Hulchanski, Campsie, Chau, Hwang and Paradis, 2009).
At the same time, what became notable in these residential schools as prevalence of physical, sexual, and psychological abuse which majority of these children had to undergo (Hulchanski, Campsie, Chau, Hwang and Paradis, 2009).
Aboriginal mistreatment: Is it a case of genocide?
Truth Commission into Genocide in Canada asserted in its report that, “unlike post-war Germans, Canadians have yet to acknowledge, let alone repent from, the genocide that we inflicted on millions of conquered people: the Aboriginal men, women and children who were deliberately exterminated by our racially supremacist churches and state” (The Truth Commission into Genocide in Canada, 2001, p5.).
The expression of these words is that Aboriginals still arch from injustices that were done on them. They still ‘bleed’ internally from many injuries they received and they still cry for their loved ones; their fathers, their mothers, their daughters together with their sons. Nobody is yet to account and apologize for the losses of their relatives, their friends, and just anyone who was close to them.
Indeed Aboriginal still moan their lost culture, their lost identity, their lost spirituality, and their lost sense of belonging. The report does not mince its words; somebody needs to say sorry to these people. People just go on with their businesses as if nothing happened, as if what happened was normal and the overall picture is that Aboriginals still gnaw in pain and trauma (The Truth Commission into Genocide in Canada, 2001).
Comparative evidence shows that what was done to the Aboriginals translated into genocide, although some writers and analysts have tried to refute this fact.
Geneva Convection on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, defines genocide as, “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious groups, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group.
Further, it constitutes deliberate infliction on the group’s conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; forcibly transferring children of the group to another group” (Gutman and Rieff, 1999 cited in Vetlesen, 2005, p.15).
According to the author, genocide is not just manifested in physical suffering but also could be experienced through actions to strip a particular group their cultural identity or aspects (Gutman and Rieff, 1999 cited in Vetlesen, 2005, p.15).
In prescribing punishment for genocide activities, the Geneva Convection stated that punishment would be executed against those: who conspired to commit genocide; direct and public incitement to commit genocide; attempts to commit genocide; and complicity in genocide (Vetlesen, 2005).
Traumatic experiences in residential schools
Boarding school era started with the establishment of the Office of Indian Affairs that was later renamed Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and BIA became part of the War Department, which became responsible in regulating tribes in the country (Heart and DeBruyn, n.d).
On her part, Laura Pedro observes that Aboriginal contact with residential schools started with recruitment of about 10,000 Aboriginal children into the government-funded, church-run boarding schools and according to the author, this formed one of the darkest incidental histories in the lives of both Aboriginals and Canadian histories (Pedro, 2009).
Immediately, BIA took up the role of providing education to the Aboriginals under its theme of ‘Civilization Division’ and boarding schools became a solution to what had been termed as ‘Indian problem’ (Heart and DeBruyn, n.d).
According to the authors, the establishment of these schools and the subsequent recruitment of students of Aboriginal original marked the long journey of teaching Aboriginals ways of civilization, which to them centered on teaching Aboriginals the dominant cultural values, language, and style of dress (Heart and DeBruyn, n.d).
As reality would dawn in the schools the Aboriginals became victims of thorough beatings in order to discourage them from speaking their native languages, children were separated from their families and their communities sometimes for many years and they were largely raised without the benefit of culturally normative role models (Heart and DeBruyn, n.d).
The establishment of these schools was done between the collaboration of the Canadian government and Christian churches of different denominations, and the aim of the two institutions was rooted in the ‘civilization mission’.
Characteristically these schools were located far away from the indigenous communities; and in the words of Hamilton (2009), this was done to, “caught young to be saved from what is, on the whole, the degenerating influence of their home environment” (p.37).
The government given support by the church used force to remove Aboriginal children from their communities to be enrolled in the schools and those parents who resisted were threatened with legal sanctions. Upon being admitted in these schools, the children at no instances were required to speak their native languages.
Further, they were not expected to wear Aboriginal clothes or engage in any form of community or cultural practice. In the end, the children did not get the education they were promised. Instead, they were subjected to systematic abuse and neglect (Hamilton, 2009).
Residential schools turned out to be avenues of racialized beliefs centering on inadequacy of Aboriginal people cultures and the schools became devoted to eradicating inferior cultures among the Aboriginals and in the process changing them (Hamilton, 2009).
One famous historian described this whole experience of residential schools by noting that, “In thought and deed the establishment of this school system was an act of profound cruelty rooted in non-Aboriginal pride and intolerance and in the certitude and insularity of purported cultural superiority” (cited in Hamilton, 2009, p.38)
According to USA official, the motivation behind the establishment of residential schools was the desire of Canada’s society to promote ‘self-sufficiency’ among the indigenous population (Totten and Hitchcock, 2010). The intention further incorporated Canada’s desires to zero in and facilitate systematic attack on traditional Indian religion and cultural practices and it was evident that the dominion purpose was that assimilation.
Experience in these schools was traumatic as some survivors of the system would describe and the result was a forceful transformation of the Aboriginals to adopt Euro-Canadian culture and way of lives against their wishes (Totten and Hitchcock, 2010). In his book titled, ‘First Nations, Residential Schools, and the Americanization of the Holocaust’ the author MacDonald David refutes the fact that genocidal activities took place in these schools.
However, the author is of the view that this school system resulted into huge traumatic experiences to the Aboriginals, where the system in totality had damaging cultural, psychosocial, and economic intergenerational impact on Aboriginal peoples (Totten and Hitchcock, 2010).
The author’s stand is that although there was severe cultural harm to these people, they largely do not amount to genocide (Totten and Hitchcock, 2010). From the work of this author, one point that comes out clearly is the fact that there were psychological legacies of atrocities directed against Aboriginals in these boarding schools.
Describing the experience in these residential schools Wilfrid Rymhs in his book ‘From the iron house: imprisonment in First Nations writing’ observes that they were established on totally different cultural values as compared to the British public schools or North America private school.
Generally, the residential schools for the Aboriginals operated and functioned within an aggressive colonizing agenda where the schools produced an experience that was distinct and for later years, the subsequent generations would become victims of the cultural damage the institutions left and formed among the Aboriginal communities (Rymhs, 2008).
It is estimated that between 1870 and 1970, about 40 percent of all aboriginal school-aged children were placed in boarding schools and what came to characterize this school was wide evidences of poor conditions. These poor conditions manifested in many ways such as neglect, and abuse and the blame is bestowed on the Church and the Canadian Government (Rymhs, 2008).
The author notes that the factor that contributed to creation of disastrous experience in these schools was based on the inherent racism that existed at the time towards the Aboriginals. In this category, the teachers, staff, government officials, clergies, and even Canadian citizens disregarded the Aboriginals and to them these people could not be treated in equal measure like the Euro-Canadian citizens (Pedro, 2009).
The overall conviction among these residential schools was that there was need to give the Aboriginals some form of paternalistic education in order for them to become civilized. To achieve goals of civilization violence became part of the process for the Aboriginal students as the author put it, “the mantra behind the entire education system was to kill the Indian in the child” (Pedro, 2009, p.11).
Apart from being avenues where abuses took place on aggravated level both physical, emotional and psychological, residential school was further seen to be poorly equipped and maintained both in terms o physical infrastructure and human resource personnel.
Comparative evidence shows that these schools had inadequate doctors, inspectors, and government officials to carry out inspections and supervision of the institutions’ programs (Pedro, 2009).
Further reports of overcrowding, poor building conditions, poor sanitation and ventilation, inadequate food, diseases such as tuberculosis, and inadequate health services constituted intertwined factors that led to high numbers of deaths in these schools (Pedro, 2009).
Impact of Residential School to Aboriginals State of Mind
The aftermath of residential schools to the Aboriginal population has drawn mixed reactions while a small percentage has hailed the system claiming that it had great impact to their lives (Pedro, 2009, p.11).
On the other hand, larger group has discredited the system claiming that it resulted into harmful effects that even it becomes hard to recognize the positives (Pedro, 2009, p.11). Starting from 1980s, evidence of crude conditions and impacts of residential schools started to emerge and numerous health problems were identified to be the product of abuses that took place in these schools.
Majority of Aboriginal children in these schools suffered all kinds of abuse the major one being the emotional stress of being isolated from the family, community and culture (Pedro, 2009, p.11). The entire system of Aboriginal traditional society was upset as children left their homes without further learning the community’s culture, values, spiritual aspects and anything that pertained to the community.
Cultural dislocation for the Aboriginal children became the norm and the long-lasting effects of this cannot be imagined widely manifested through loss of language, culture, familial bonds, exposure to physical, mental, and sexual abuses.
Due to lack of supervision in these schools, Aboriginal children were subjected to extreme punishment facilitated through physical violence, verbal assault, racist insults, and general humiliation (Pedro, 2009).
Those who managed to survive these harsh conditions returned home totally ‘different’ people. In essence, the children outside were Aboriginals and inside they were ‘white’. Many of them could not comprehend their language leave alone the whole culture.
Children appeared strange to their parents and to the society in general. More so, the harsh, abusive, and oppressive system they had gone through made majority of returnee to resort to alcohol and drug abuse as coping mechanism to relieve their detachment from their community as well as their memories of abuse (Pedro, 2009).
The former student even after a prolonged stay in the community exhibited at least one or more symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder that in most cases included “depression, panic attacks, insomnia, uncontrollable anger, alcohol and drug abuse, sexual inadequacy or addiction, the inability to form intimate relationships, and even eating disorders” (Pedro, 2009, pp 11-12.).
The Present Aboriginal Trauma Problem
Historical and previous experiences cannot be divorced from the current state of the Aboriginal mental problems. The Aboriginals harbor unresolved grief which has become accustomed to passage to the successive generations (Heart and DeBruyn, n.d).
The two authors note that the first generation of Aboriginals who were victims of direct abuses and subsequent looses suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the manifestation of this disorder include depression, hypervigilance, anxiety, and sometimes substance abuse (Heart and DeBruyn, n.d).
What is evident is that PTSD has been passed on from one generation to the next among the Aboriginals.
Most Aboriginal are believed to suffer from unresolved historical grief and just like any other communities that have undergone historical abuse Aboriginals are entitled to a pervasive sense of pain from what befell their grandparents and their community and what remains among them is incomplete mourning of those losses (Heart and DeBruyn, n.d).
Today’s Aboriginals are victims of high rates of suicide and subsequent studies that have been done point that the suicide incidences among this population has positive correlation to the implicit unresolved, fixated, or anticipatory grief about perceived abandonment as well as affiliated cultural disruption (Heart and DeBruyn, n.d).
Numerous statistics shows that the present Aboriginal generation has been subjected to recurring traumatic losses especially of relatives and other community members through alcohol-related accidents, homicide and suicide while at the same time domestic violence among Aboriginals are one of the highest in the country (Heart and DeBruyn, n.d).
Deaths are frequent among the Aboriginals leaving people mourning from the last loss as they face the most recent one and these patterns of present losses together with significant trauma of the past have become responsible to the accelerated anguish, psychological numbing, and destructive coping mechanisms that are related to unresolved grief and historical trauma (Heart and DeBruyn, n.d).
Further oppression Among the Aboriginals is still evident today, particularly fostered through spiritual persecution.
Today emergence of ‘New Age’ imitations of traditional Aboriginal spiritual practices is causing a lot of trauma where insensitive and opportunistic non-Aboriginal traditional healers have sprouted in large numbers and their actions largely reflect actions or intentions to corrupt and aim to profit from stereotypic distortions of traditional ceremonies.
Such behaviors are viewed to be assault to the Aboriginals and major source of modern trauma as experiences of the past become manifested and repeated.
Alcohol abuse is prevalent among the Aboriginals and estimates show that it is about 5.5 times that of the national average (Heart and DeBruyn, n.d). Role models for drinking behavior for a long time have been associated with pathological and correlate to violence and it is an aspect of behavior Aboriginals have become accustomed to.
Alcoholism behaviors among Aboriginals are associated with generational unresolved trauma and grief and the two authors, Heart and DeBruyn (n.d) note that “With the introduction of the reservation system, a colonized people lost control of their land, culture, and way of life.
Further explanation of Aboriginal alcoholism should be within the precepts of self-destructive act often associated with depression as an outcome of internalized aggression, internalized oppression, and unresolved grief and trauma” (p.70).
Further, it is noted that the accelerating levels of suicide, depression, homicide, domestic violence, and child abuse among the Aboriginals can be associated with processes of internalized oppression and identification with the oppressor and motivated by historical forces.
Addressing trauma among the Aboriginals Clinical activist strategies have been recommended by numerous researchers to constitute the best and most appropriate strategies in dealing with the issue of trauma among the Aboriginals (Heart and DeBruyn, n.d).
This is a model that has processes that encourage grieving historical trauma, and individuals are presented with the opportunity to go on with the healing processes through individual, group and family therapy as well as personal spiritual developments strategies (Heart and DeBruyn, n.d).
At the same suggestion is made for the Aboriginals to take part in facilitating communal grief rituals while at the same time incorporating and participating in traditional practices (Heart and DeBruyn, n.d).
Further, some programs within the same dimensions are incorporating community elders and instances of storytelling teaching skills about the Aboriginal community history to the young people that have the capacity to serve as avenue of creating historical awareness and knowledge to the people of this community.
Effective healing for majority of traumatized individuals in this community is seen to originate from the role extended kin networks perform especially in providing support to identity formation, sense of belonging, recognition of shared history and the general survival of the group (Heart and DeBruyn, n.d).
Further, working with Jewish victims of Holocaust Fogelman (1988) note that, it is essential to develop specialized intervention programs that are built with a focus of resolving the general communal grief (Heart and DeBruyn, n.d). At the same time, there is need for mental clinicians working with the affected people to develop appropriate and training programs to address the various problems (Heart and DeBruyn, n.d).
The author concludes by noting that for perfect and long-term historical grief resolution there should be communal support, strength, identity, and the overall maintenance or replacement of extended family networks together with the response mechanisms to facilitate processes of addressing unresolved grief (Heart and DeBruyn, n.d).
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