Now that the party is over and the fireworks are done, let’s see what exactly we celebrated.
Quite often, but especially every year on Canada Day I find myself thinking about my country, and how lucky, happy and grateful I am to be living in this peaceful, rich, vast and beautiful country.
I remember one year I even wrote a personal essay, expressing my appreciation for my adoptive country and my pride in being Canadian. I have lived the last thirty six years of my life in Canada. It has been very good to me. It’s allowed me to use my full potential and live a rewarding, safe and satisfying life.
Now that I know a little more about Canada’s history, I still feel very lucky to be able to live here, but proud?
That’s a different matter.
This year especially, when the country is celebrating its 150 anniversary, I find the narrative about who we are, false and misleading.
Canada is not 150 years old. The Confederation is. And the confederation was the joining of four of British colonies into the Dominion of Canada. We are celebrating the beginning of the unification of four British colonies. This is a celebration of the colonization of the land we live on.
What is never mentioned in the celebration narrative is the invasion, occupation and appropriation of the land of many different indigenous tribes. Europeans arrived on the shores of North America thinking it was East Indies, and discovered a land that they didn’t know about. Christopher Columbus did not discover America. He discovered that there was a vast and rich landmass he had no idea about.
The British and the French arrived in the present day Canada in the 15th century and occupied, colonized and fought over different parts of it for a few centuries.
The various tribes who had lived here for thousands of years before them were used, traded with, infected with diseases, fought against, negotiated with, massacred, legislated, and driven out of their land. The British and the French signed hundreds of treaties with various indigenous tribes in Canada, (see the list of these treaties in Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian) making promises they often didn’t intend to keep, only to breach the treaties, and force the indigenous people to give up their land and relocate again and again.
The colonizers harassed and oppressed the indigenous people for centuries. At various times they a) forbade them to speak their language; b) forcibly took their children away from them, converting them into Christianity, keeping them away from their families for years, physically and sexually abusing them, (According to King “Up to 50 percent of them lost their lives to disease, malnutrition, neglect and abuse.” ) reserved the prerogative to decide who has the right to call herself/himself an Indian. The end result of all this brutalizing is that the indigenous tribes in Canada were left alienated, impoverished and traumatized.
In 2008 Stephen Harper apologized for the suffering the residential schools had caused the aboriginal people. He didn’t apologize for the confiscation of land, massacres, breach of treaties and relocation of aboriginal tribes. He only apologized for the residential schools, without offering any compensation for the survivors and their families.
It is interesting to know as an aside, that shortly after the apology, in a G-20 summit Harper declared “We have no history of colonialism in Canada.”
To use Noam Chomsky’s term, “Look yourself in the mirror.”
Meanwhile the surviving colonized indigenous people suffer shockingly high disease, high school dropout, incarceration, systemic social and institutional discrimination, poverty, addiction and suicide rates.
Disease – Amanda Klasing reported in The Globe and Mail on August 30, 2016: “… there are currently 158… drinking water advisories in 114 First Nation communities. This statistic doesn’t reveal the full extent of water problems facing First Nations communities.”
High School Dropout Rates – Caroline Alphonso, in an article entitled “Hope for Marleah” in the Globe and Mail states: ”Indigenous students in Keewatin-Patricia District School Board graduate high school at less than half the rate of their non-Indigenous classmates…The challenges are similar across the country, and should horrify Canadians.”
Incarceration – According to Statistics Canada “In 2015-2016, Aboriginal adults were overrepresented in admissions to provincial and territorial correctional services, as they accounted for 26% of admissions while representing about 3% of the Canadian adult population.”
Racism in the Police Force – According to some estimates, around 4000 indigenous women were murdered or went missing since 1980. Most of these cases were not properly investigated by the police.
Suicide – Furthermore, a 2016 CTV News report says “According to a 2000 report from the Canadian Institute of Health, suicides among First Nations youth (aged 15 to 24) was about five to six times higher than non-aboriginal youth in Canada.
And the abuse continues.
The residents in North West River in Labrador are worried that the multi-billion dollar hydro-electric project in Muskrat Falls, which has contaminated the land behind the dam with heavy metals, “…could lead to flooding, spreading the contamination to the land and waterways they depend on for fishing and hunting. “ When the NunatuKavut and the Inuit tried to demonstrate and blockade the project, their elders were arrested in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador, taken 800 kilometers away and jailed in St. John’s, Newfoundland.
Alberta tar sands which is one of the most destructive and contaminating oil excavation projects on earth is located on the traditional lands of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation and the Athabasca-Chipewyan First Nation. Despite these nations’ vocal opposition, and celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio, and public figures like Archbishop Desmond Tutu drawing attention to the degree of devastation it causes to its environment, the project continues in full force.
International Agreements – The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which was adopted by the General Assembly in September or 2007 with 144 states voting in its favour, had 4 states opposing it. These were the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Eventually after a few years these states also completely or partially accepted it. Article 26 in this declaration states:
- Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired.
- Indigenous peoples have the right to own, use, develop and control the lands, territories and resources that they possess by reason of traditional ownership or other traditional occupation or use, as well as those which they have otherwise acquired.
- States shall give legal recognition and protection to these lands, territories and resources. Such recognition shall be conducted with due respect to the customs, traditions and land tenure systems of the indigenous peoples concerned.
Yes, we have the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, yes, we have the Multiculturalism Act, and yes, we finally accepted the United Nations Declaration above, but when it comes to the implementation of our beautiful laws, we either neglect them outright, or drag our heels indefinitely by using the loopholes in our civil, legal and judicial systems.
There are many investigations, hearings, consultations, lawsuits, and special inquiries on issues pertaining to the indigenous people in progress at this time. These are drawn out, expensive processes, carried out under British/French laws which were imposed on indigenous people. The government has deep pockets, the indigenous people are poor. The government has lawyers defending its own laws, regulations and injunctions. The indigenous people have to be subjected to the white man’s laws. The government has the police who carry guns. The indigenous don’t. The process is lopsided, inequitable, and unjust.
We take in refugees from half way across the globe and help them integrate into our society, but we neglect the fact that there are many nations who were here millennia before us, whom we’ve severely wronged for centuries in many ways.
Instead we sometimes pay lip service to them, and start another set of meetings, hearings, negotiations, etc. etc.
We have to negotiate with the many indigenous tribes in this vast land in earnest and good faith. We have to fully abide by the UN Declaration in all our dealings with them. And we have to compensate them for their current losses and pay reparations for past offences and mistreatments in a fair and timely manner.
Only then can we celebrate our national birthdays with integrity and pride.