Canada fetes Con­fed­er­a­tion

Per­spec­tives on a na­tion at 150

The Guardian Weekly - - Front page - Van­cou­ver diary Ashifa Kas­sam

Two hun­dred pad­dlers will weave through the wa­ters, their ca­noes carv­ing a thin line in English Bay against the back­drop of Van­cou­ver’s sky­line. When they pull in to Vanier Park – one of the many des­ti­na­tions on their 10-day jour­ney – lo­cal chiefs from the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Wau­tuth First Na­tions will greet them and of­fer per­mis­sion to step ashore on to their tra­di­tional ter­ri­to­ries.

The pro­to­col, which has played out on these lands for thou­sands of years, will be one of the sig­na­ture events tak­ing place this month as Van­cou­ver marks the 150th an­niver­sary of the sign­ing of Canada’s con­fed­er­a­tion. But as maple leafadorned para­pher­na­lia flies off store shelves and the cap­i­tal city of Ot­tawa wel­comed thou­sands of tourists last week­end for 1 July Canada Day cel­e­bra­tions, some Cana­di­ans have been ques­tion­ing what, ex­actly, is be­ing cel­e­brated across the coun­try this year.

“Ev­ery sin­gle time I see a Canada 150 logo I want to take a Sharpie and add a cou­ple ze­ros to the end of it,” Inuk film­maker Alethea Ar­naquqBaril told a fo­rum ear­lier this year. “Ask­ing me to cel­e­brate Canada as be­ing 150 years old is ask­ing me to deny 14,000 years of in­dige­nous his­tory on this con­ti­nent.”

The an­niver­sary marks the year that the Bri­tish North Amer­ica Act was passed by the Bri­tish par­lia­ment, paving the way for colonies of Canada – which in­cluded On­tario and Que­bec – to join Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in cre­at­ing a sin­gle Do­min­ion of Canada.

In Van­cou­ver, city of­fi­cials ini­tially con­sid­ered boy­cotting the event, wor­ried that honour­ing the coun­try’s colo­nial past would com­pro­mise its ef­forts to­wards rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with lo­cal First Na­tions. Their con­cerns were well founded.

“Ev­ery­where I look right now I see ev­ery re­tailer and ev­ery store cel­e­brat­ing 150, but peo­ple re­ally don’t have an un­der­stand­ing of what that means to in­dige­nous peo­ple,” said Rhi­an­non Ben­nett of the Pulling To­gether Ca­noe Society. “The cel­e­bra­tion of oc­cu­pa­tion of stolen land is re­ally hard to wrap my head around. So we’re here look­ing at ev­ery­one cel­e­brat­ing 150 years of oc­cu­pa­tion and it’s hurt­ful.”

Af­ter con­sult­ing Abo­rig­i­nal lead­ers, Van­cou­ver launched Canada 150+, a re­brand that seeks to highlight in­dige­nous his­tory and cul­ture.

Across Canada – where Canada 150 is be­ing marked with­out the plus sym­bol – the an­niver­sary has sparked myr­iad re­sponses. Some, such as the elders of the Assem­bly of Man­i­toba Chiefs, have de­cided to boy­cott all events. Oth­ers have sought to highlight what the past 150 years have meant to their com­mu­ni­ties, don­ning T-shirts that read Colo­nial­ism 150 or plas­ter­ing the coun­try with stick­ers that read Canada 150 Years of Geno­cide and Canada 150 Years of Bro­ken Treaties.

“If you’re a con­scious Cana­dian liv­ing in this coun­try, you shouldn’t be sup­port­ing Canada 150,” said Jay Soule, an in­dige­nous artist known as Chippe­war who launched the sticker cam­paign ear­lier this year. “You can be proud to be a Cana­dian and live in this coun­try, but you have to ac­knowl­edge the present day plight of in­dige­nous peo­ple – as well as the past his­tory – and not just sweep it un­der the rug.”

The pass­ing of the act 150 years ago ush­ered in Canada’s first prime min­is­ter, John A Macdonald, who bragged that the in­dige­nous pop­u­la­tion was be­ing kept on the “verge of ac­tual star­va­tion” in or­der to save gov­ern­ment funds. In 1920, bu­reau­crat Dun­can Camp­bell Scott de­tailed to a par­lia­men­tary com­mit­tee his de­sire “to get rid of the In­dian prob­lem.” His sen­ti­ment trans­lated into the ex­pan­sion of the church-run res­i­den­tial schools, which forcibly re­moved 150,000 Abo­rig­i­nal chil­dren from their fam­i­lies.

In some ways, lit­tle has changed, said Soule. “The same things are be­ing done that were done 150 years ago, only with less bla­tant vi­o­lence. We still have miss­ing and mur­dered. Girls on a daily ba­sis are still miss­ing, still be­ing mur­dered. We have mass in­car­cer­a­tion, we have third world con­di­tions, we have un­safe drink­ing wa­ter. The list go­ing on and on and on.”

The fed­eral gov­ern­ment is spend­ing half a bil­lion dol­lars to mark the an­niver­sary, yet some point out that it has yet to com­ply with a 2016 rul­ing that it was racially dis­crim­i­nat­ing against abo­rig­i­nal youths by un­der­fund­ing child wel­fare on re­serves and has made lit­tle progress on prom­ises to pro­vide safe drink­ing wa­ter to the nearly 90 First Na­tions com­mu­ni­ties where in­hab­i­tants are ad­vised to boil their wa­ter be­fore drink­ing.

Along with re­pu­di­at­ing the coun­try’s col­lec­tive am­ne­sia, many ac­tivists have sought to highlight in­dige­nous re­silience and re­sis­tance. Dozens of groups par­tic­i­pated in a Na­tional Day of Ac­tion to co­in­cide with the fes­tiv­i­ties of 1 July.

Six months into the 150th an­niver­sary year, the coun­try’s most talked about art ex­hi­bi­tion, Shame and Prej­u­dice: A Story of Re­silience by renowned artist Kent Monkman, has at­tracted tens of thou­sands of peo­ple to the Art Mu­seum at the Univer­sity of Toronto as it takes on the coun­try’s col­lec­tive me­mory.

“There’s been a de­lib­er­ate skating over and gloss­ing over of the real his­tory of this coun­try,” said Monkman, who is of Cree an­ces­try. “And I wanted a very strong mes­sage for peo­ple – this year par­tic­u­larly – to not al­low them to cel­e­brate their coun­try with­out re­ally re­flect­ing on the prob­lems with their coun­try’s found­ing myths.”

Ask­ing me to cel­e­brate Canada as be­ing 150 years old is ask­ing me to deny 14,000 years of in­dige­nous his­tory

More than maples … Abo­rig­i­nal art in Van­cou­ver Liang Sen Xin­hua/Bar­croft

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