Friday, January 19, 2018

Revisiting Canada 150

And so the 150th anniversary of Confederation has come and gone. I have to say that it was a bit of a disappointment. Or was it? Growing up with the popular memory of 1967, Canadian exceptionalism compared to the United States, and the echoes of Pierre Trudeau, I couldn’t wait to experience the next chapter: 2017, a chance to renew Canada, break free of Stephen Harper’s legacy and be the coolest place on the planet once again.

Given Brexit, Donald Trump, economic uncertainty and continued global unrest, a big Canadian party seemed to be the easiest thing to imagine. The traditional feeling of superiority over the United States had returned, the federal/provincial system looked stable compared to European strife, and we had the world’s hippest leader in the form of – who else? – the son of Pierre Trudeau, superstar of Canadian popular memory (the Anglophone/Eastern part at least).

Yes, there were big celebrations on July 1; yes the Canada 150 logo was plastered on trains, buildings, advertising and a few front lawns; and yes, there was even a memorable political gaffe when Justin Trudeau forgot to list Alberta as a province during his Parliament Hill address on Canada Day. But the tone was far from festive. People didn’t seem in the mood to celebrate. The CBC’s special Canada 150 programming didn’t generate much discussion (even two new episodes of the wildly popular Canada: A People’s History felt rushed and feeble) and much of the coverage focused on those who felt that the party was not a celebration, but a betrayal.

If 1967 was a chance for Canada to come of age and show the world a new model for a diverse (ish) and inclusive (ish) society at a time of ideological conflict, then 2017 was a moment to advertise to the world just how awful a place Canada was: Indigenous people living without clean drinking water, scarred from decades of cultural (and, at times, literal) genocide; police brutality directed disproportionately at urban black communities; and an economy still firmly rooted in the destruction of the planet for the purpose of selling off natural resources. Within the academic sphere, this mood was especially pronounced.

At this year’s Congress, the annual meeting of over 100 academic associations, the conclusion was that Canada in its 150th year deserved a universally failing grade. The country had never done a good thing for the world. Instead, it has secretly practised genocide and was continuing to oppress all who were not what a census might consider ‘average’. I personally beg to differ: Canada is not currently facing a crisis of its existence; our Prime Minister actually believes that science is real and that facts cannot have alternate equivalents; and, in almost every imaginable circumstance, one can walk down the street with a reasonable expectation of still being alive once you have reached your destination. None of these points were made. Academic discussion was not a debate, but a relearning of an alternate reality, free of critical reflection.

Of course, both Canadas are real and need to be acknowledged and confronted. There are lots of truly wonderful things about Canada, from the wide expanse of land to the world-class and affordable health care (which is at risk of being eroded). But there are many, many things which Canada has done wrong (and continue to do wrong) that need to be rectified as soon as possible. History feeds off nuance. Public debate should too.

And this is why I found Canada 150 to be such a disappointment. I for one actually wanted a party. There was a great deal to celebrate. Instead, the year became one long telling off from every possible angle. But it was a telling off without a remedy. Yes, we should feel bad, but to what end?

But maybe that was the whole point. From the disappointment came a renewed understanding of all the things that needed to be improved. All the things that Canada had ignored for too long. Fireworks would fade; feelings of guilt in the face of injustice might not. Maybe then, the true meaning of Canada 150 was to highlight a country that was willing to give up its birthday party to consider those who didn’t feel much like celebrating.

To salvage some optimism, we can see Canada 150 not so much as a commemoration, but as a new beginning. Many Indigenous leaders chose to focus on the next 150, an opportunity to try again, to make Canada (Turtle Island even) a place of fairness, inclusivity (not just tolerance) and genuine custodianship of this country and those who live here. History cannot really show us the way forward, but a nuanced understanding of it can show us what has worked and what hasn’t. Let us hope that for Canada 200 (maybe even 175), everyone can truly have a reason to celebrate.

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