I certainly enjoyed this year’s festivities for Canada 150 in Ottawa, mainly because I spent my time at the inspiring events put on by my Cardus colleagues for our Faith in Canada 150 project. But as I watched those taking part in the official ceremonies, I wondered if they’ve thought of Canada Day 2017 as the last one.
There will of course be observances called “Canada Day” in future years on July 1, though the calendar is rather chock full of national observances at that time, from gay pride month to National Indigenous Day. Marking Confederation might prove to be a bit of an anti-climatic bother. In any case, it won’t be marked in the same celebratory way.
Canada 150 was ostensibly about the Acts of Confederation in 1867. But there were objections that to celebrate 1867 implied that somehow nothing of value took place beforehand. In particular, it was suggested that the whole affair negated the presence of Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples before Confederation, and therefore Canada 150 was an aggressive act, the latest in centuries of European aggression toward Indigenous Canadians. These voices grew to the point that by the time Canada Day 2017 rolled around, the brutality of Canada toward its Indigenous inhabitants was actually the dominant news story.
Given that the government had dropped about $500 million dollars on the celebration, it was too late to re-brand the whole thing as a genocide awareness-raising event. The best that could be done was to give all of the official – and many of the unofficial – events a dual character. Canada, on the one hand, is a story of oppression and brutality that still operates according to a racist, settler, colonial mentality. On the other hand, it is a beacon of hope, peace, prosperity and progressive tolerance, which has drawn millions from every corner of the earth. In sum, Canada 150 was a thunderous, unrelenting insult to almost every other country on earth: Ours is a ruthless history of larcenous violence, but we are still so much better than you!
Next year, there will be no half-billion dollar ramping up to Canada 151, no need to pay tribute to the remarkable achievement of a peaceable, stable, prosperous democracy. What will be left beyond the lamentable settler history? Will future Canada Days be days of national repentance punctuated by fireworks?
The future Canada Day dispensation was announced on Canada Day itself by The Globe and Mail. The nation’s organ of acceptable opinion decided that it was a suitable day to run a column by Romeo Saganash headlined, “150 years of cultural genocide: Today, like all days, is an insult.”
Saganash is a Quebec NDP member of Parliament who attended Indian residential schools. He wrote that, “nearly everything around us represents colonial domination and genocide” and that “Canada 150 is just a year of re-victimization.”
“Like it wasn’t enough to colonize once,” he concluded. “Now we are going to shove it down your throat.”
It turned out Saganash had plagiarized his column from an Indigenous doctoral student, which was only mildly embarrassing. It was quickly resolved with an apology and an observation that Indigenous voices had been stolen for so long that the episode was oddly symbolic.
The whole “shove it down your throat” approach to Canada Day might have been a tad off-putting, so The Globe followed Saganash with a July 2 column by Matthew Coon Come, grand chief of the Cree Nation near James Bay, Quebec, arguing that the “tide is turning on Canada’s relationship with Indigenous people.” Some good things are happening, Coon Come said, but not before some throat-clearing to begin:
In 2015, Senator Murray Sinclair, then head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, accused Canada of “cultural genocide” for its creation of the Indian Residential School System and he called on Canada to take specific actions to renew the fundamental relations been Canada and Indigenous peoples. No one poisoned him or shot him for these bold actions. He was made a senator.
In 2001, when I was national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, I attended the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, and I also accused Canada of genocide. Again, no one tried to murder me for these statements (although [the Chretien government] did severely slash the AFN budget at the time thus restricting my ability to act meaningfully on behalf of Canada’s First Nations, but that is another story).
The tide has begun to turn as far as Canadians’ understanding of the history of Indigenous peoples in this country. It is increasingly acknowledged that Canada’s historic treatment of Indigenous peoples has been, and in some respects continues to be, racist and colonialist."
The tide has already turned when the characterization of the country as historically genocidal is no longer an obstacle, and perhaps an advantage, to government preferment. Certainly, it would seem the view of The Globe that Canada’s history is one of genocide. And if that’s now the agreed upon starting point, it is hard to see how Canada Day will ever again be the same.
The prime minister tried to get a jump on the new Canada Day by announcing that henceforth the Langevin Block, where his office is housed, will no longer use the name Langevin – now persona non grata for his role in the residential schools system – and simply be called the “office of the prime minister and privy council”.
They are getting the idea in Halifax. Just a few weeks after Canada Day, Mayor Mike Savage ordered city crews to assist a Mi’kmaq protest in shrouding the statue of Edward Cornwallis, Halifax’s founder, charged with genocide by the Mi’kmaq and others gathered. The mayor said he told the city crews to cover up the statue for safety reasons, and that the tarp would taken off later. The protestors want the statue to come down permanently, and the mayor, who was on hand for the deprecatory rituals, said he would bring up the matter at city council. No prize for guessing whether Canada 150 was Cornwallis’ last Canada Day in Halifax.
Duncan Gould, from Membertou First Nation in Cape Breton, was on hand to explain why the statue had to go: “Would we honour Stalin or Pol Pot or Hitler? If you want to honour hatred and racism, fine, but it doesn’t belong in a public venue. It belongs in a museum or a cellar – the dustbins of history, as they call it.”
I would think that if you wanted to promote hatred and racism, you would choose something a little more within the reach of imitation by ordinary folk, and not the greatest mass murderers in human history. But in the wake of Canada 150, genocide talk has become so loose as to cover both Pol Pot and Edward Cornwallis.
Does it matter? It does for those who might enjoy a Canada Day unadorned with genocide references.
But it matters more for Canada’s Indigenous peoples. Canada 150 has established a new official telling of Canada’s tale, that of native peoples as aboriginal and perpetual victims. Let' stipulate that it is entirely true. Does it provide a foundation for the advancement of Canada’s Indigenous peoples? The story of victimization leads almost inevitably to an obligation of recompense from the state and removes agency from Aboriginal Peoples themselves. If you happen to believe that Canada’s native peoples need more government initiatives, then the path ahead looks bright, because that is what is coming.
Coon Come, having himself advanced the rhetoric of genocide, recognizes the danger of where that path leads:
We have adapted and incorporated new ways of relying on the land to sustain us while doing so in the context of our traditional values, philosophies and way of life. We are no longer “victims” and we no longer play the “blame game.” As it should be, we are now the authors of our own future.
Perhaps that is the case in James Bay. I hope that it is. But it certainly was not the case in Ottawa at Canada 150. Tales of Indigenous peoples as authors of their own future were notably absent.
At most Canada Day events among the most enthusiastic participants are immigrants. It is not unusual for them to outnumber, in some cities, citizens whose parents were born in Canada. Will they come in future to lament the land that they have chosen?
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