Canada fetes Confederation
Perspectives on a nation at 150
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