Canada Is 150?
As the year comes to an end, what did Canada's 150th birthday really mean?
This year marks the 150th anniversary of Canada as a country. I am sure that if you are a living in Canada currently, you were unable to escape the hype building up to July first. Taking into account that Canada Day also falls on a Saturday this year, and we had a country ready to celebrate and party. The issue is that not everyone in this country was willing to, or feels welcome to, celebrate. Predominately, I am referring to our country's indigenous populations. The feeling of a lack of a proper invite to the party can be simply seen in the age that is being celebrated: 150. Indigenous Canadian populations have had this land as their home for dozens more centuries than that. So, the confusion surrounding exactly what this celebration is celebrating is easily understood if you take a step back to see things from some uncommon perspectives. Today I want to explore this specific perspective of Canada’s 150th anniversary, and what it means to the Aboriginals that reside within this nation. On top of this, I wish to explore why these discrepancies between perspectives exist, and ultimately, what can be done to close the gaps and work toward a truly inclusive multicultural nation.
I decided to write on this topic when I came across an article that a Facebook friend shared: Canada 150 is a celebration of Indigenous genocide by the Chair of Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University, Pamela Palmater. At the beginning, this article can come across petty, especially from a White Canadian positionality, such as is mine. However, it quickly enlightens the reader to the many nuances surrounding the controversy in celebrating Canada’s birthday. Firstly, Palmater criticizes the half of a billion dollars being devoted to the 150th celebrations, while First Nations people continue to live in chronic crisis-level socio-economic conditions. Palmater is dismayed by our Prime Minister Trudeau’s contrasting talk versus his actions. Justin Trudeau has spoken vastly of the importance of First Nations' needs, and has expressed how vital a good relationship between Canada with First Nations is. While having said this, the government then chose to devote vast sums of money to celebrating 150 years of Canada, as opposed to putting that money towards improving Indigenous lives in this country (Palmater: 2017). Understandingly, this fuels a bitterness toward these celebrations from the First Nations community. This cuts even deeper when one understands the historical context that Indigenous peoples are unable to separate from these celebrations. To most Indigenous peoples, 1867 marked the end of an era, instead of the beginning that is being celebrated. Looking at the historical context where all of these strong emotions and opinions are growing from is integral. Palmater makes her opinion clear: Canada Day is a celebration of the physical and cultural genocide committed against First Nations (Palmater: 2017). First reactions by predominantly White Canadians to this "harsh" opinion is that people who feel this way are being too sensitive and exaggerating. This is exactly the sort of reaction that is unhelpful in this conversation. Why does this difference in opinion exist? These two groups of people have vastly different educations: official and cultural educations. While First Nations peoples live with constant daily reminders of the devastating impacts of the colonization; from poor housing and water, to lost languages, to the implied apologies behind their tax breaks, the rest of Canadians have more or less moved on (Palmater: 2017). In public schools, from my own experience, the bare minimum is taught concerning the treatment of First Nations, and it is most certainly taught as history. It is not simply history though, and this country as a whole needs a lesson in remembering, acceptance, and amends. Not all these cries of inequality are going unheard, though. In Vancouver a different celebration, and hopefully tradition, revved up.
This year, Vancouver is did something very different for its Canada Day celebrations, and it was with strong intent to include, and be sensitive towards, First Nations. Vancouver has the third highest First Nations population in the country and takes great interest in maintaining a healthy relationship between cultural ties, going as far as to designate itself a “City of Reconciliation.” Instead of celebrating Canada’s birthday this July first, Vancouver made an effort to celebrate Indigenous history and culture instead, with their Canada 150+ celebrations. This decision came about after much consideration between the Vancouver government and First Nations representatives. The added "+" to the name counters the inherent implication that before 150 years ago, there was no culture or civilization to be celebrated (Macdonald: 2017). This simple addition clearly welcomes Indigenous Canadians to the party, and on their own terms. This celebration is about adding to what needs to be remembered and celebrated, instead of neat selective popular forgetting, to move into a healthy future, instead of a blind and ignorant one. As the city’s manager of Aboriginal relations said, “None of us is going anywhere. We have to learn to live together—in a respectful way, and in a truthful way" (Macdonald: 2017:2). By choosing to celebrate 150+, Vancouver officials are walking the talk Trudeau is so often criticized for neglecting; they are making the message loud and clear, that First Nations are a part of Canada, and their truth and historical context deserves its due respect.
How can you celebrate Canada as it is now if you do not understand, accept, and work with what Canada has been in the past? Just as we have seen in our culture with issues like yellow peril, remembering something as history, when it has a dynamic current present, leads to misrepresentation and easy othering. Without taking care to understand the proper historical contexts of all parties involved, how can a fair playing field manifest (Crawford: 1996)? Palmater notes that, “Celebrating genocide is not what most would consider a modern Canadian value” (Palmater: 2017:2). How then, have we gotten away for so long by neglecting to properly acknowledge the ramifications of our colonial past, in the context of First Nations peoples? The path of neglect and othering does not need to be the one that we follow. If an entire city, like Vancouver, can be active in building relationships with First Nations, why cannot others do so as well? Accepting that the quality of life one has in Canada was laid down by colonization and, at the very least, cultural genocide, is difficult and unconfutable. However, by following the path of ignoring this truth, this nation of Canada, that we so often amp up to be inclusive, safe, and welcoming, is built upon a facade. We get away with this fair image, only so long as we ignore the poor privileges provided to First Nations, as a result of the colonization that Canada Day celebrates. By choosing to accept, understand, amend, and show respect we can move into the future in good conscious. Right now, however, we are driving into the future with our rear-view mirrors pointing downward (McLuhan 1967).
There is more to the name of “City of Reconciliation” than simply being friendly to each other. This name implies a specific priority in amending the past, while ensuring a better future, for all parties involved. The fact is, is that we share this land, whether it is home and native, or just simply home. Home is a place to be looked after, and to feel safe in, and that is what initiatives like Canada 150+ are aiming to accomplish. As noted in Elusive Culture, “People act upon knowledge, even as it acts upon them (Yon 2000).” The information that is accessible plays a huge role in how we live our lives, and thus, these popularly ignored truths need to be widely available to help us live a truer life. Even if you personally do not feel connected to the idea of Canada Day celebrating genocide, other Canadians do. If you are willing to do the Canadian thing, and walk the walk, accept that those opinions matter, and be open and responsive to them. Would it not be wonderful to celebrate our home with no reservations, not because of ignorance, but because of understanding and acceptance?