Content warning: This article contains mentions of colonialism, genocide, violence, slavery, xenophobia and war.
It’s been little more than a week since 2017 began, and I am already fed up with Canada’s 150th anniversary celebrations. Advertisements for the country’s anniversary are appearing everywhere: there are new posters at major monuments across the provinces, radio advertisements, television commercials dramatizing Canada’s history, and maple leaf logos as far as the eye can see. The most troubling, and clearly problematic, aspect of the stifling patriotism on display through the year is that all of it is in celebration of a violent, settler-colonial state. Canada not only has its roots in the killing and exploitation of Black and Indigenous peoples, but is also currently enacting violence upon marginalised bodies – all while maintaining a frighteningly pristine reputation in the eyes of the rest of the world.
150 years of what?
As of 2017, it’s been 150 years since Canada became a confederation under the British North America act: a moment considered seminal in the creation of the state of Canada. Largely ignored within this narrative is the history of all that came before the confederation – mass genocide and oppression of Indigenous peoples, the theft of Indigenous lands and resources, and the violation of treaties set up between the original inhabitants of the land and the invading settlers.
The first Europeans arrived in North America as early as the 15th century, and once the British and French colonial empires heard about the resources present on the continent, their focus was singular – taking the land for themselves. The Indigenous peoples who inhabited the continent were so loathed by the colonists that colonial authorities sought only to eliminate them – either through outright genocide, or through violent assimilation with the intention of ‘breeding out’ Indigenous identities and cultures.
Both pre- and post-confederation, Indigenous peoples had their land systematically taken away from them: when treaties were agreed upon, they were later violated by the Crown, leading to smaller and smaller reserves of land being designated for Indigenous nations. This theft of land goes hand in hand with the systematic elimination of identity and culture. The enactment of this racism, this settler-colonial white supremacy (which is distinct from other forms of white supremacy because of the entitlement non-Indigenous settlers feel for the land they have colonised), is not a thing of the past. It has been present in Canadian legislation and political action through the past few centuries and until today.
Canada’s origins are ugly and shameful. A brief overview of Canadian settler-colonialism is not nearly enough to reveal the brutalities of Canadian colonial history; it does not reveal all that the first Canadians did, often at the command of the crown, to become the ‘true’ inhabitants of the land. For instance, before the establishment of the state of Canada, British soldiers are known to have given Indigenous opponents blankets infected with smallpox, in order to eradicate large portions of the population at a time. Or, for example, from the 18th to 20th century, provincial laws provided monetary rewards (bounties) to white Canadians who scalped Indigenous people – that has yet to be eradicated from provincial law in Nova Scotia. In addition, the Canadian government made a concerted attempt to eliminate what Duncan Campbell Scott, former minister of Indian Affairs (from 1913-1932), referred to as the “Indian problem,” by forcing Indigenous children away from their families and into residential schools, where they were made to rid themselves of their Indigenous identities and cultures, and were subject to psychological, physical, sexual, and emotional abuse at the hands of the government and church officials. This ended only in 1996.
This is the history of Canada as it celebrates 150 years. And yet, these realities have been erased, and have been replaced with the image of Canadian benevolence. To non-Indigenous Canadians, and to the outside world, Canada is a country full of people who say sorry a lot, play hockey, are kind by default, and are pristine by reputation. Canadians boast that their history of slavery was short-lived and a largely benevolent one – this is untrue, and neglects the two hundred years during which slavery was a common practice among the white Canadian settlers. Canada claims that its history is an inclusive and multicultural one – another lie, given that Canada actively banned immigrants from south and east Asia from entering the country during the early 20th century. Admittedly, these phenomena deserve more than a sentence each in the argument against the idealisation of Canada. In fact, the entire perspective through which Canada is viewed as a utopian society which “has itself figured out,” as I heard someone describe it the other day, needs to be dismantled and reassessed. Where did the myth of benevolence come from? Why has being “not as bad as America,” something we’ve all heard many times, become the standard by which Canadians satisfy themselves? And why, to this day, are these standards being used to shroud the truth?
A celebration of hypocrisy
Canada’s wrongs are not frozen in the past. Looking to the future, all is not well. The Liberal government presented the core tenets of the anniversary as “diversity and inclusiveness, reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, the environment, and youth.” But even within these parameters, Canada is failing to live up to its own ideas.
If Canada really intends to be inclusive, the government might want to reassess the country’s role as the second largest arms dealer to the Middle East, and sixth highest arms dealer in the world. Canada likes to be thought of as a peaceful nation, but under the approval of the Trudeau government, $15 billion worth of military vehicles have been sold to Saudi Arabia – a nation declared by many non-governmental humanitarian groups to be in violation of several human rights. Saudi Arabia, with the aid of U.S, funding is leading the ongoing bombing campaigns in Yemen. The largest dealer of arms to the Middle East is the U.S., which cements Canada’s usual position as not the absolute worst, but in this case certainly second in line.
In addition to this, if Canada’s attempts to ‘reconcile’ with Indigenous peoples are sincere, then why is it that as of this year, several Indigenous reserves across the country are still denied access to clean drinking water? As of early 2016, 114 Indigenous communities in various provinces have been issued a total of 158 active drinking water advisories. For many, this has gone on for years, and has not been addressed by the Canadian government.
As for Canada’s environmental policy, which is directly tied to Indigenous rights to land and water, the Liberal government has disappointed many with its most recent decision to approve the development of oil pipelines by Kinder Morgan and Enbridge. In the aftermath of the decision, Greenpeace campaigner Mike Hudema stated that, “With this announcement, Prime Minister Trudeau has broken his climate commitments, [and] broken his commitments to Indigenous rights.”
Through all of this, there have been some bright spots in Canada’s history – it has served as a home to thousands of refugees, and to discount that role does a disservice to the lives of those who have found solace in Canada. It is also important to note that, for many non-Indigenous Canadians, it can often be a privilege to live here – but to refuse to acknowledge these privileges is wrong in itself.
However, there needs to be a shift in the way we perceive this country. Canada is far from perfect, but somehow, has gotten away with maintaining its shiny, spotless illusion. It seems to me that loving something should mean understanding the ways in which it needs to be improved, and working towards those improvements – is it not possible for Canada to recognise its past in a way that reflects the hidden side of its history? Is there not space in the conversation for improvement that first acknowledges the wrongdoing that has come before it? As of right now, Canada is choosing to look back at only what it wants to see, and look forward without acknowledging the effects of the past – but the country has a long way to go before the exalted image it has created for itself becomes a reality.
The article has been amended to cite the sources initially intended to be included, but which were subsequently omitted due to the error of an editor. The Daily regrets the error.