by Katherine Gilks, Projects Coordinator
The end of June is a peculiar time of year in Canada. Of course, it marks the end of the school year in most communities. It is a time of change, reflection, and moving forward.
Except for large sporting events and the occasional military commemoration, Canadians are not well-known for being nationalistic, especially when compared with our American cousins. If anyone flies a flag on their house, it is likely for a sports team or an ancestral country. We do not have to pledge allegiance to a flag every morning as schoolchildren.
But the end of June and beginning of July are different. Suddenly, Canadian flags appear in windows and balconies. Stores have maple leaf trinkets. Advertisements get increasingly nationalistic no matter what they are actually trying to sell. One of the most frequent images that they are trying to sell is being a good Canadian by drinking beer, drinking coffee, and going camping.
However, the ten days leading up to Canada Day also tell their own story. On June 21, we celebrate National Indigenous Peoples Day (as well as the Summer Solstice). Three days later, on June 24, it is St. John the Baptist Day, which has been co-opted by French Canadians (especially in Quebec) as a nationalistic holiday. On July 1 itself, Newfoundland & Labrador celebrate Memorial Day in the morning before moving into Canada Day celebrations after lunch.
In simplistic terms, the arrangement of these days reflect the mixed heritage of Canada. July 1, 1867 is considered Canada's "birthday", but I think a better metaphor would be that of a marriage. In that case, this year marks Canada's 152nd wedding anniversary. Unfortunately, this marriage has not been a very respectful and happy one.
I prefer the metaphor of a marriage to a birthday because it better illustrates that much of Canada's heritage comes from prior to 1867. It also implies that Canada is a relationship or series of relationships, rather than an entity in of itself that is born and grows.
For much of Canadian history, we have existed in an abusive marriage. What started as an uncomfortable but mostly mutually respectful relationship deteriorated quickly. Much like fur traders who abandoned their indigenous wives to marry European women, Confederation was a marriage that deprived indigenous peoples' of their role in the relationship entirely. It also made one party in the marriage more powerful than the other - albeit par for the course in an era when wives were expected to be obedient servants to their husbands. Provinces became subservient to the federal government. Ethnic minorities were further subjected to the British-Canadian majority. Both the federal and provincial levels of government became trapped in a cycle of trying to make each other happy. Indigenous peoples were systemically marginalised in an attempt to get rid of them.
Slowly, over the past 152 years, we have come to realise that our marriage is indeed abusive, but worth saving.
Nonetheless, saving it has been difficult and requires real change of hearts and minds. It requires a change of image, narrative, and perspective altogether.
From a personal perspective, as a non-indigenous Canadian of thirteen generations, learning a "new" narrative of Canadian history has been both uncomfortable and liberating. It has been uncomfortable because I had internalised the "we settled the wilderness and built a better life" story. It was the story that I knew. However, it has also been liberating because it has made the story bigger. There is more to learn. It is not simply a matter of turning heroes into villains.
But the marriage cannot work if one party insists on controlling all of the resources. The marriage cannot work if no one listens. Most importantly, the marriage cannot work if either party listens, but insists that they cannot change. Simply saying "sorry" is not enough.
And yet, we can celebrate our 152nd anniversary, reflecting on our past and moving forward together.
We can even celebrate it by drinking coffee and camping.