Everyone loves Canada: I have been around the globe and without fail, when I tell someone I am from Canada they say, “Canada! I love Canada!” or “Canadians are the best!” or “Oh wow, you are so lucky to live in Canada!” I am a proud Canadian: I love my country. I love the big prairie skies, the untouched Rocky Mountains, the east coast cliffs. I love that we say sorry too much or that we wave when someone lets our car merge. I take pride in knowing we have legalized same sex marriage, that our Prime Minister promotes the welcoming of refugees, and that we have added rights for trans folk to our Constitution.
For years, I eagerly celebrated Canada Day. Who doesn’t love an excuse to throw on face paint and set off fireworks? But while it was easy to be ignorant as a child of what “Canada Day” really means, such bliss is a privilege I now try to keep in check. As an adult, I recognize that Canada Day is, in fact, not so jolly.
Everyone celebrates different things on Canada Day. For some, that may mean celebrating the only place they have ever called home. For others, it may mean giving thanks to the country that accepted them and gave them a brighter future. Some people may celebrate the freedom they hold in Canada, some may celebrate the natural wonders of our landscape, and some may celebrate the inclusivity and diversity of our nation.
But whether you want to admit it or not, Canada Day is also a celebration of colonization. To celebrate Canada every July 1st is to celebrate when we (European settlers) invaded the home of Indigenous people. It is to ignore our systematic oppression, our attempt at cultural genocide, and our stealing of Indigenous people's land.
Canada is not 150 years old.
By suggesting that Canada was ‘created’ in 1867, we effectively ignore the fact that Indigenous people lived on this land for centuries before us and pretend that we didn’t invade their land, steal their resources and try to eradicate their culture. To say that Canada has a 150 year history is to negate anything that happened before; to erase it; to say it wasn’t important.
Creating a narrative that erases history is extremely problematic. Not just because it is untrue, but also because it gives non-Indigenous Canadians permission to ignore our horrific history.
We cannot look away, plug our ears and pretend that the potlatch ban, the 60’s scoop or the residential school system did not happen. We cannot lie and say these policies were anything other than attempts to eradicate Indigenous culture. Beverley McLachlin, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, plainly stated herself that our government-enforced assimilation was actually “cultural genocide.”
Canada 150 is indeed a very ‘Canadian thing;’ it is sweeping our problems under the rug and pretending that we have a simple history and a happy nation. But the wounds from colonization still run deep: Indigenous men and women have a shorter life expectancy than the rest of the population. Suicide is a leading cause of death for Indigenous people. They have higher rates of unemployment and receive lower wages. Indigenous people make up 4% of Canada, but account for 25% of admissions to correctional facilities.
By erasing our past with Canada 150, we also ignore our present.
Celebrating the Good.
With all that said, I believe there is still a lot to celebrate about Canada. Our country is not perfect, no country is, but that shouldn’t stop us from celebrating our positive aspects and accomplishments.
At the end of the day, we can, and most certainly should, celebrate our beautiful nation. But we must do so with a conscious understanding that our country was created in union with institutional abuse of Indigenous people.
Confronting our Brutality.
This year, for Canada 150, Indigenous people were allowed to control the content of their pavilion in Ottawa. So while there was the cultural paraphernalia many non-Indigenous folk have seen before, there was also a darker, more real side to the pavilion. Some signs read: “Too many Indians are poor, sick, cold and hungry.” “The white man’s school is an alien land for an Indian child.” “Give us the right to manage our own affairs.” As a result, some people who visited the pavilion were upset. One white visitor said, “This is horrible. I’m not going to stay here.”
I agree with that white person – it is horrible. Which is why we must stay here.
We are a country that fights Indigenous children in court over equal access to child welfare. We are a country that consistently and systematically steals land from its rightful owners. We push pipeline projects forward without getting consent, or often even consulting, the affected Indigenous communities.
I get it; my first instinct is to run away as well. That is a nasty history and an embarrassing present. Looking away and covering our ears seems like the most bearable course of action. Which is why it is understandable that Canadians have chosen to do this for generations.
But as we all know, leaving a problem doesn’t make it disappear. And reconciliation cannot, and will not, happen without conscious acknowledgment, critical thinking and civic engagement from all Canadians.
It’s a Conscious Decision.
Canada deserves praise. Relative to the rest of the world, we are a pretty darn great country. We are the most educated country in the world, our citizens are free from war, we have universal healthcare, and we live on a beautiful rugged land. These are things I am happy, and eager, to celebrate.
But we cannot idealize Canada. The issues that plague our country – including racism and our relations with Indigenous people – are all real issues that have harrowing histories and adverse effects on our society. This is not just our past, but our present as well. If we choose ‘Canada 150,’ thereby perpetuating a false narrative and failing to acknowledge these issues, we will never be able to resolve them.
Canada 150 is the easy choice. It gives us a cut and dry starting point, a simple narrative, and a happy country. But it is not the right choice.
So What Do We Do?
I believe there is a way for us to mark Canada Day while still acknowledging our nation’s difficult history and current issues. Just as I believe we as Canadians can be proud of our country, but remain critical of its shortcomings and put pressure on our institutions build and maintain a just society.
I do not believe that any acknowledgment of Canada as a nation is inherently colonialist, nor do I believe that “people are too sensitive” and “should just join the celebrations.” I believe there is a middle ground.
A celebration of Canada – arguably one of the most successful societies in the world – must be tempered by a mindfulness that the nation’s climb to prosperity occurred alongside institutional oppression of those who were here long before us.
On Canada 150, our citizens need to be conscious of and reflect upon our collective history. We must remember that we are all on Indigenous lands and that we are all treaty people. Mostly importantly, Canadians must remember that reconciliation is not an Indigenous issue; it is a Canadian necessity.