by Nancy La, Staff Writer
Content warning: residential schools, genocide, colonization, police and state violence
When I was in high school, most of what was taught about Canadian history was through the lens of European settlers and colonizers. I remember our class spending only an hour (out of the whole term) on Indigenous history and their experiences. The rest of class time was devoted to the British and French takeover and the War of 1812. This willful ignorance parallels (for the most part) the country’s own refusal to acknowledge its bloody past.
The British North America Act established Canada as a country on July 1, 1867, four centuries after the first appearance of the Europeans on the east shores of what we now call Newfoundland. According to Canada’s website, Indigenous peoples and Europeans “coexisted” with “strong economic, religious, and military bonds” during this time. This statement oversimplifies the brutal truth behind the process of colonization. There’s no need to look far to see how incredibly immoral this statement is, with the recent confirmations of children’s remains at residential schools being broadcasted on the daily. By celebrating Canada Day, we are letting our sense of patriotism prevent us from seeing Canada’s reprehensible treatment of Indigenous communities.
A year after being established in 1867, Canada Day — then called “anniversary of Confederation” or “Dominion Day” — became a mandated statutory holiday. Making the celebration of a country based on genocide a state-enforced holiday is the ultimate act of colonial domination.
After nearly wiping out Indigenous populations with a lethal combination of foreign diseases (measles, smallpox, and influenza) and mass land theft in the 1830s, the government decided to have a celebration for Canadians to “show their pride in their history, culture and achievements.” Yet what achievements are there to be proud of, aside from blatant racism and discrimination?
Flash forward to 2017, iconically remembered as the 150th anniversary of Canada’s founding as a state. People proudly displayed maple leaf paraphernalia in parades and watched fireworks explode on Parliament Hill. Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch submitted a report on the fraught relationship between the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and the Indigenous communities they were supposed to serve. All the elements of suppression mentioned above, on top of the RCMP’s role in enforcing residential schools by forcing children to attend them, help “[fuel] the strong mistrust, suspicion, and resentment many Indigenous people continue to feel towards law enforcement.”
The report further elaborated on the practice of “starlight tours,” where police officers in Saskatchewan drove Indigenous peoples to the outskirts of the city and left them there, only to make them walk home in the middle of winter, exposing them to hypothermia. As the nation celebrated its colonial heritage, that same heritage was responsible for the “present-day patterns of violence against Indigenous women and girls, and police failures to respond to such violence.” This parallel between the Human Rights Watch report and the open celebration in 2017 highlights the duplicitous nature of Canadian patriotism. The nation would rather choose ignorance of the state’s wrongs against Indigenous communities over the moral and ethical obligations to right those wrongs.
An example of such ignorance took place in 2019 with the release of another report on Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG). Chief commissioner Marion Buller pointed out the violence on Indigenous peoples is a “national tragedy of epic proportions.” He went on to say the tragedy is the government’s unwillingness to grant the commission the extension it needed for a more thorough investigation.
It is ironic that the government established the commission while refusing to give the commission the time it needed for a more comprehensive report. This points to an inherent unwillingness of the state to acknowledge its faults in its relationship with Indigenous communities and the desire to keep up appearances of reconciliation. As Buller puts it, by not granting the extension, “governments chose to leave many truths unspoken and unknown.”
When the MMIWG report came out, it called the violence inflicted upon Indigenous peoples, especially women, girls, and Two-Spirit community members, a “Canadian genocide.” It also described the state’s behaviours towards Indigenous communities as “rooted in colonialism and colonial ideologies.” These behaviours are “built on the presumption of superiority, and utilized to maintain power and control over the land and the people by oppression and, in many cases, by eliminating them.”
These reports are tragic and painful reminders that the state we are living in has never stopped its suppression and mistreatment of Indigenous peoples. As much as we like to think Canada has rid itself of its colonial past, the blood of colonization remains on its hands.
Canada Day is a day marked by genocide, violence, and trauma. National pride, the main driver behind celebrating Canada Day, is just an excuse to ignore the brutality and violence this country inflicts upon its people. It’s easier to party than it is to look at the ugly truth behind this country’s nice façade.
Canada has been taking the easy way out for its entire existence. Groups like Idle No More are calling for Canada Day to be cancelled and instead implore people to honour all the lives lost to the Canadian State. By cancelling Canada Day, the state will be taking part in reconciling with history and facing its own mistakes. Only by change can this country be better, and striving for improvement is something Canadians can be proud of.
If you do decide on waving the red and white maple leaf flag on July 1, think about how much violence and trauma stands behind those two colours.