I was thoroughly pleased to notice the absence of neon-clad security guards as I biked past McConnell Engineering the morning of November 11. My joy was short lived, however, as I turned the corner and saw that McGill security had been replaced by the Royal Canadian Legion, replete with four cannons occupying the centre of campus. I had arrived just in time for the 21-gun salute in honour of Remembrance Day. In a dramatic step up from the rifles used in last year’s ceremony, the cannon blasts seemed to reverberate through all of downtown, setting off car alarms and encasing Lower Field in a layer of white smoke through which I could just make out the figures of men in camouflage assembled around the weapons.
My accidental run-in with the Montreal Remembrance Day ceremony seemed a perfect compliment to the talk I had attended the previous night by King Downing, an anti-police brutality activist from New York. Throughout his discussion, Downing stressed the connection between racial profiling in the policing of citizens and larger national discourses, such as the War on Terror, that ostensibly rest on the geographical separation between the nation and the Other. Downing cited the increasing militarization of police forces, as well as colonialist legacies of racism that blur national borders and inform both police and military brutality in North America. As you might imagine, the sight of camouflage and cannons on Lower Field the very next morning made me pretty upset.
Many friends I’ve discussed the ceremony with have become defensive upon hearing about my discomfort. The importance of remembering veterans, the merits of a startling ceremony to remind civilians of the horrors of war, Canada’s role as a global peacekeeper – all have been cited in defence of the tradition. And don’t get me wrong: I’m all for remembering and honouring sacrifices, and whether or not I agree with any given war, I don’t blame soldiers for the messes that governments create. That being said, is there no room for a critical look at the ceremony as an establishment and legitimization of national identity?
The Government of Canada’s web site expounds many of the sentiments I’ve heard around campus in defence of the ceremony. Writing as a monolithic Canadian “we,” the web site ties the act of remembering to a notion of Canadian citizenship as a national identity that supersedes all other identities (the web site lists age, race, and social class; I would throw gender, sexuality, ability, and religion into the mix), and binds these homogenized Canadians together as a nation marked by “our commitment and skills as peacekeepers.”
Canada as peacekeeper? I’m skeptical. In an article on Canadian nationalism, Université de Montréal professor Heike Härting debunks the peacekeeper myth, citing the 1993 Somalia scandal, Canada’s “failure to intervene effectively” in the Rwandan genocide, and the recent foray into Afghanistan, events which compromise this narrative. But beyond the ambiguity of the peacekeeper claim, Härting and others point to ways in which “Canada as peacekeeper” can translate into racist, exclusionary practises both abroad and at home. In other words, who is included in the Canadian “We”?
The nationalist rhetoric displayed on the government’s web site falls in line with other forms of multicultural discourse that, though they appear to celebrate diversity, serve in fact to erase legacies of discrimination that factor into the lived experiences of many Canadians.
For example, the web site’s statement that “for those of us born during peacetime, all wars seem far removed from our daily lives,” lumps all Canadian citizens together in a common experience of “daily life,” and refuses any discussion of the violence that many citizens experience on Canadian soil. Non-normative Canadian citizens are policed all the time through a variety of media; whether it be at the hands of racist police forces or exploitative neo-liberal economic policies, through journalism that conflates the words “Arab,” “Muslim,” and “terrorist” in the name of national security, or through ethnocentric claims to a gender equality that Canada has never seen, a chimerical gender equality that justifies military involvement in Afghanistan to liberate poor women in burqas. Canada is not a homogeneous nation, and state violence against non-normative citizens must be viewed as an effect and foundation of Canadian nationalist discourse that reverberates onto the international stage.
But back to the bombs on Lower Field. There is something unsettling about the Remembrance Day ceremony for some people beyond the waves each blast sends through digestive tracts. For me, almost more startling than the event itself was to hear so many students legitimize the presence of a violent institution on our campus in the name of tradition. Narratives of national identity have clearly succeeded in obscuring the militaristic and homogenizing forces that marked the ceremony. The complicit reaction of many McGill students to such a hypocritical, militaristic celebration of Canadian nationalism contributes to the exclusion of, and legitimated violence against, Others both inside and outside Canada.
Rachael Graber is a U3 Geography and Women’s Studies student. Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org.