This is actually two posts for the price of one.
For the week leading up to Canada Day I struggled to write down my thoughts about how I felt about the celebrations and my country in the light of all that I have learned in the past couple of years about how we as a country have treated the Indigenous peoples who were here before the European settlers arrived.
I struggled because I am simultaneously proud to be a Canadian and supremely disappointed and disgusted by what successive governments have done to try to destroy the people and cultures who were here first. I am appalled by the social license we as Canadians provided to our governments to implement these genocidal policies and programs.
I didn’t manage to publish this post before Canada Day.
So now Canada Day has come and gone, I watched the Indigenous demonstrations and speeches, read the thoughts and ideas of other Canadians and I heard the words from the Prime Minister, cabinet ministers and all of the other people given space to speak on the Canada Day and We Day stage.
The political leaders all said the right kinds of words about listening and atoning for the mistakes of the past. Those of course all need to be taken with a grain of salt. Government rarely moves as fast as we want them to and so the words can often seem hollow if the actions to match the words are not visible or meeting our expectations.
The words I heard that gave me the most hope came from the We Day stage on Parliament Hill today. It was the voices of young Indigenous leaders who pledged to keep fighting for their rights and it was the voices from other young people acknowledging that we have work to do.
As the Prime Minister said, we have spend 400 years creating this mess, it is going to take a little while to fix it. Those are words I agree with and believe. It takes time to build new relationships based on new understandings. It takes time to pivot the machinery of government. It takes time to change long-held social norms and perspectives. Correcting the mistakes and abuses of the past will take time. That said, we ought not use lack of community capacity or unwillingness of governments to give up their colonial power over Indigenous peoples and communities as an excuse to delay any further. We need to move swiftly to make change. We will make mistakes along the way and that is ok, because at least we will be walking the path instead of just looking at it.
It was hearing the words of the young leaders and seeing the actions of the young people who set up the tipi on Parliament Hill that gave me the feeling that we as a country will be able to pull together and build a new relationship with the people on whose land we have built our capital and so much of this country.
Our Home on Native Land
Our National Anthem starts with “Oh Canada, Our Home and Native Land.”
I am pretty sure that many people don’t think about the meanings of that line when they sing it. I know that for most of my life when I have sung that line that I think about myself as native to this land because I was born here. It has only been in recent years that I have thought more deeply about it.
Both sets of my grandparents immigrated to this country and I was born here. So Canada is my home. My home also happens to be on native land and I am not the native.
I live in Ottawa, our Nation’s Capital.
It sits on stolen land.
Ottawa sits in traditional Algonquin territory, which was never ceded to European settlers through treaty.
This week Canada celebrates it’s 150th birthday. I have always thought of Canada Day as a celebration of what we are as a country. As a country we are very successful. We are a model for the world of a country where people from all over the world live together in relative harmony.
That is not to say that we don’t have racism or that all the people who live here are living to an acceptable minimum standard of living. This is especially true for the Indigenous people from whom much of the land that makes up Canada was stolen.
Canada Day has long been special to me, not in the least because it is the anniversary of the day my partner and I started dating. As long as I have lived in the Capital Region I have celebrated Canada Day on Parliament Hill – in spite of the often mediocre shows. When we moved back to Ottawa after a stint in Toronto I worked as a speech writer for the National Capital Commission and had the opportunity to write a couple of speeches that were used to open the morning and evening festivities on Parliament Hill.
This year I feel a little less excited about the day, even though it is a big day for the country.
This year I have been thinking about how terrible we as a country of settlers have treated the Indigenous people of this land. We have systematically attempted to kill off and culturally destroy the first peoples.
If I am honest with myself, I have generally thought that it was too bad that the Indigenous peoples lived in poor living conditions on reserves. I didn’t feel any particular responsibility for that situation in part because I don’t live near any of the reserves so I don’t experience those conditions first hand. Primarily because my family all came to Canada in the past century. I don’t think any of my ancestors were involved in the land theft or mistreatment of any of the native peoples. I do come from British stock though so I am certainly descended from the kind of racist and religious thinking that provided the foundation for decisions of those who have governed Canada since Europeans first landed here.
In 2015 the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released their report on Canada’s residential schools and their recommendations for what governments can do to begin to atone for the mistreatment of the Indigenous peoples of Canada. Progress on the implementation of those recommendations has been slow.
I was shocked and distressed by what I heard from the testimonials who shared their stories and experiences in residential schools. I was also surprised to learn that the schools were still operating during my lifetime.
[While I was in the process of writing this post a group of indigenous youth set up a tipi on Parliament Hill with the intent to remain there throughout the Canada Day festivities. They are there to draw attention to the ongoing challenges facing their communities and to demonstrate their resistance to the celebration of the establishment of the country that continue to occupy their traditional lands.]
I am appalled at how uninformed I was and continue to be about the history of the Indigenous peoples who were here before Canada was created and their history since confederation. I have a degree in history and took a number of Canadian history courses during my studies. The pre-confederation history that I learned was heavily focused on the English and French settlers and the development of the Canadian state. There were occasional mentions of the first nations and which peoples allied with the English and which allied with the French in their various wars, as well as the battles they participated in during the war of 1812.
At no point did we discuss residential schools and the determined efforts of successive Canadian governments to “take the Indian out of the child” and implement policies designed to destroy indigenous culture and communities.
As I mentioned above, I think Canada is a tremendously successful country. I also think we have a lot to make up for. Most of us non-Indigenous people living here need to acknowledge that our success is built on a foundation of stolen land and cultural genocide. While successive governments have established and built this great country, they have also been guilty of the suppression of the original people of what is now Canada.
So this year while I celebrate the country we have become, I am thinking about what more we need to do to reconcile with our past and with the Indigenous people of this land. We owe them more than just respect, we owe them restitution for the harm done. We owe them support and trust. We need to resolve the land claims and build relationships between the governments of Canada and the Indigenous nations with which we share this space.
We have a lot of work to do. Together we can do it.
Happy Canada Day!