Questioning the project called Canada
by Jon Malek
The coming of an anniversary not only presents opportunities for celebration, but also for reflection. Birthdays are times to reflect upon one’s accomplishments, goals for the future, and things in life to be grateful for. On wedding anniversaries we don’t only celebrate bonds of love and friendship, but reminisce about times past and times to come. Regardless of what we celebrate, we always take the time to pause and reflect, and so it is only fitting that we, as a country, should celebrate and reflect upon this nation in which we live.
First and foremost, I think it is worthwhile to recognize that for many of Canada’s residents, this is not a celebration. For many of Canada’s indigenous populations, July 1st marks a 150 years of Canadian colonization, which replaced British and French colonization from the preceding centuries. This is not to “rain on the parade” of Canada Day celebrations. I believe in the value of our country, the positive values we hold, and the attempts of Canadian society to work towards a more just and humane world. Yet we must also be aware, always, of what Canada means to all segments of Canadian society, and to accept that some do not accept it as much as others. A community is never complete, however, and as a national community Canada must continually work towards building relationships and friendships, and this can begin with honouring the promises of the Canadian government to its indigenous populations.
Second – and this is a question that has consumed me for years – is to think about what does it actually mean to be Canadian? Beyond legal status and classifications, what does it mean to be Canadian? What does it mean to be unCanadian? There is a disturbing trend in Canada where xenophobic, racist, “alt-right” white supremacist groups are on the rise. One iniquitous group, going by the name “Soldiers of Odin,” has claimed to be an innocent organization interested in keeping city streets safe (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatoon/soldiers-of-odin-canada-community-group-watch-1.3761178), but continue to share the name of an organization branded by the Anti-Defamation League of the United States as a group with strong ties to white supremacy. (This is, as an aside, deeply ironic, as the Norse god Odin was not a white supremacist, and, in fact, cared and loved all of humanity.) The existence of these groups points to an often unspoken conception that Canada is, somehow, a “White” country. If this is so, it is only because it has been white, often male, European-descended inhabitants (that is, colonizers) who have seized power over others and dominated the national discourse. We’ve already discussed the indigenous populations, which lived in what is now called Canada for centuries before others arrived. Since before Canada was a country, it was home to many ethnocultural groups. African Americans often crossed the border into Canada, especially in the final years of slavery in the United States; following the abolition of slavery, many more moved north, working on Canada’s growing railways as porters. Asian populations, too, have long lived and worked in Canada, something that I’ve written on in the past. Indeed, Alexander Mackenzie reported that Filipinos were working along Canada’s west coast as early as the 1790s. These people were contributing to the construction of a robust economy that would drive the creation of the province of British Columbia in 1858. Even then, while attempting to portray the province as an outpost of white, British society, Caucasians were by no means the majority group.
Third, and finally, it bears considering what events in our nation’s history we remember. History, as I try to impart upon my students each term, is not merely a recollection of the past, a laundry list of past events, people, and dates. Certainly, these facts make up the foundation of what we call history, but if that were all it was, it would be too boring to bother with. No, history is the retelling of the past, the selection of narratives, stories, and themes that people construct. This is why, during Canada 150, the Canadian government celebrates a century and a half of progress and growth, while Canada’s indigenous peoples remember the centuries of colonialism they continue to endure. Different groups reconstruct – that is, remember – the past in different ways. What we remember and how we tell our history says a lot about us. So, when the popular national narrative of Canada’s early history discusses things such as the fur trade, or the exploration of the Northwest Passage, or the “Conquest” of the 1760s, or the Battle at Vimy Ridge – who is included in that narrative? The Winnipeg General Strike of 1912 sent shockwaves across Canada, and set off a series of changes that would greatly improve the lives of Canada’s working class; and yet, somehow this often fails to find expression in popular memory.
Most of the popular events in Canadian history – especially Canada’s early history – deal with white, European descended Canadians. What about the others? Were they non-contributing members of society? Were they passive beings whose lives left no impact on history? Certainly not, but popular memory chooses to forget that. In my high school Canadian history class, the only mention I heard of Chinese in Canada was that they helped build Canada’s national railway, and those who died in the work were unceremoniously buried under the tracks. What kind of a narrative is that? Certainly not one that celebrates the ingenuity of Chinese in Canada, of the fact that, even though legislation and popular sentiment discriminated against them, Chinese migrated across Canada, establishing communities and successful businesses. What we remember, what histories we tell, have effects, and can either include or exclude people in those stories. As a country, we need to open up our national narrative, and give space to the many groups who contributed to what we now call Canada.
Canada 150 is certainly a time for celebration. There is a lot about Canadian society to be proud of, and I believe in the potential of our nation and society. Yet a nation is an ongoing project, one that always needs tending and mending. We all contribute to this, both in remembering and retelling the past, but also crafting the future along lines that are inclusive of all inhabitants and the variety of experiences that they bring to Canada.
Jon Malek is a PhD candidate in History at Western University, and is a member of the Migration and Ethnic Relations program.