This year is Canada’s 150th anniversary. Sort of. It depends on what you define to be ‘Canada’. I mean, Canada was initially declared a country of its own 150 years ago, but even before that, it was a settlement for European people, and even further back than that, it was the native land of many indigenous tribes. Canada as a recognized country is only 150 years old, and already it has a long and bloody history of colonialism, cultural genocide, and systemic racism.
And that’s not to say that I’m not proud to be a Canadian. I am – especially lately. In a world where Donald Trump can be president of the United States and people continue to lose basic human rights every day, I’m so relieved to be living in a country that actually seems to be taking steps in the right direction. Our current prime minister has the most diverse cabinet that I have ever seen, including disabled people, native people, the first ever Muslim minister in Canadian history, and fifteen women, meaning that women represent exactly half of the cabinet. That’s something that really shouldn’t be a big deal, but it really is, considering in the United States, it’s a group of majority white men who are signing away women’s rights to reproductive health. In Canada, our prime minister has marched in the Toronto pride parade, and he has opened our doors to refugees in need of our country’s help. I’m very proud to be in a country where all of this is true, but at the same time, I am not going to deny that my country has its faults as well.
In Canada, 49% of Aboriginal peoples live on remote reservations (according to a 2015 report from Maclean’s), leaving them out of sight and out of mind for many Canadians. And on these reservations, many natives experience a quality of living comparable to third world countries, with limited access to health care and education – but we are not a third world country. That is completely unacceptable. Issues such as alcoholism and abuse are also common among natives in Canada – and not because it is inherent amongst native people, but because between the years of 1876 and 1996 (so within that period of 150 years that we are celebrating today), native children were taken away from their families and forced to attend residential schools in an attempt to teach them to forget the language and culture of their ancestors, to assimilate them into ‘Canadian society’, and while they were there, they faced mental, physical, and sexual abuse so severe that many of the survivors and their children are still dealing with the mental effects of it. And not to mention, as reported by Terry Glavin in 2014, native Canadians are incarcerated ten times more often than the national rate, despite making up 4.3% of Canada’s population, they face an unemployment rate of 14%, and if they go missing or are murdered, there is a chance that the police will not even bother to investigate. And what I have listed here is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the race problem that Canada has.
But why am I saying all of this now? What does all of this have to do with Canada’s 150th anniversary? Well, this year, Canada Day is a celebration of Canada’s history, but all of this is an important part of Canada’s history that needs to be remembered just as much as our strengths need to be celebrated. And not only is it important, it is a part of Canada’s history that frequently goes ignored. Although this is more a part of American history than Canadian history, I think it is important to state that I had only ever heard Christopher Columbus hailed as a hero until I was in my second year of university, when I discovered that he was actually guilty of enslaving natives, part of which involved torturing, raping, beating, and/or kidnapping men, women, and children. It wasn’t until university that my teachers assigned reading from the perspective of native authors either. And as I pointed out when I said that most native reservations are out of sight and out of mind, it is too easy for the majority of Canadians to just ignore what is actually going on in our country.
And we can’t.
If our country is going to have a stronger future than our past, we need to fix it.
And maybe I’m not the best person to say how exactly we fix this, because I lack the lived experience of being a native person in Canada. But I do know that one of the first big steps in moving forward is spreading awareness. It’s taking a moment away from our celebrations this year and remembering every aspect of Canada, the good and the bad.