Sarah, Sam and I had dinner together on a patio last Saturday, the first time we’d seen each other in person in a year and a half. It was wonderful and emotional to have them in the flesh, all three of us weathered a bit by the time, the lockdown, the COVID anxiety, the shifts in our moral urgency about our relationship as White people to racism, to structural inequity, and especially, to our identity as settlers. We were talking about the #CancelCanadaDay conversation, and our server overheard us.
“Nope! No Canada Day!” she said, confident about interrupting, emotional. “Not this year. We are finding dead babies everywhere. Just give it a goddamn MINUTE.”
For the non-Canadian readers who haven’t been tracking, unmarked graves of hundreds of children have recently been exposed on the sites of former “residential schools,” cultural assimilation centres for Indigenous children that operated in this country for more than a century, the last one closing in the 1990s. Much of the coverage of this horrifying story — two sites of unmarked graves with 1000s more expected to come — casts these discoveries as relating to “a dark part of our history.”
But it’s not history. And that’s why we need a day to pause and reflect on what this project of “Canada” is all about.
These centres were part of a multi-century program of cultural genocide against Indigenous peoples that continues today in many forms, including persistent appropriation of land for pipelines and other reasons, the federal government fighting Indigenous human rights claims in court, the Catholic Church refusing to acknowledge its substantial role in residential schools, a failure to provide clean drinking water in Indigenous communities, Indigenous children being deemed “at risk” and disproportionately taken from their families, the “silent genocide” of missing and murdered Indigenous women, profound health inequalities for Indigenous people, and overt racism in the health and mental health systems, with Joyce Echaquan being just the most recent and prominent example of an Indigenous woman mocked for her pain and left to die in a hospital in Quebec. And all of this doesn’t begin to acknowledge the intergenerational and cultural trauma that every Indigenous person in Canada carries.
The discovery of the graves of children in cultural assimilation centres is not an anomaly; it’s incontrovertible evidence that the project of White settler colonialism in Canada has, at its centre, cultural and actual genocide. We cannot look away. As our server put it last weekend, “give it a goddamn MINUTE.”
Today is officially Canada Day, the anniversary of confederation. Since “Canada 150” in 2017, there has been a growing movement to inflect the day with reflection on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to be with the truth of Canada’s history and presence along with celebration, gratitude for the many things that are good about this country, appreciation of the natural land. This year, that movement has blown fully into a call to #CancelCanadaDay. Many municipalities have called off celebrations, rallies of solidarity are being organized, and many people have suggested spending the time writing letters to politicians or listening to the voices, art and stories of Indigenous people. (A great place to start the exploration of Indigenous voices is the Downie Wenjack Foundation site, which is also sponsoring “a day to listen” with radio stations across the country. Blogger Kim suggests becoming familiar with Indigenous activist artists like Tara Beagan, Kim Senklip Harvey or Article 11. I have also found this book really meaningful this month).
I know that “cancelling Canada Day” feels like an overreach to some people. My mother expressed scepticism, pointing out of course this is all terrible, but we’re also coming out of a horrible pandemic, and we need to feel a little hope. Our prime minister is trying to walk a line between acknowledging the horrors of dead Indigenous children, reflection and “looking forward to a time when we can all be proud to celebrate Canada Day.” For many newcomers, Canada Day means something important.
I get it. Acknowledging that the structures, the country, the culture you are embedded in, you identify with — that these are also directly accountable for incredible harm? This is extremely difficult. It’s a paradox — how can we be a country that cares about human rights, does good in the world, creates safe spaces for LGBTQ people, is one of the most diverse places in the world — and also be a country that profits from colonial structures, glosses over or reinforces persistent racism, fails to examine our own biases, turns away from pain. We want to distance ourselves from the overt racism from the past and not acknowledge the persistence of more subtle, harmful dynamics. And dismiss the more overt ones like the death of Joyce Echaquan as anomalous, not “us.” Fundamentally, we want to be able to “address wrongs” while maintaining existing power structures.
“Listening” means unlearning. It means letting go of what we think we know, even what we think constitutes “knowledge.”
A few years ago, I helped convene a forum on Indigenous Health for about 150 of the most senior scientists in Canada. Throughout the day, every speaker coming from an Indigenous perspective underlined the message that addressing chronic health issues in Indigenous communities isn’t about the specifics of individual diseases, it’s about forming relationships that enable each community to create its own solutions, in partnership and with the support of western medicine. That the root of chronic disease like diabetes isn’t about individual food choices, or even about community access to food, but about the very relationship to one’s body and health that evolves out of generations of trauma. That an intervention that works in one community isn’t transferrable to another, that each community’s unique engagement with healing IS the intervention. The science was solid and the voices were moving. And one after another, older, White scientists (usually male) stood up and made little speeches about how the problem was diabetes, or that diabetes requires intervention X or Y. As though they hadn’t even been able to hear this challenge to their version of evidence and knowledge.
This unlearning is a lot of work, and it requires vulnerability. Listening and trusting that the people who are telling you their truths are telling you something important. Even if that “something important” is deeply uncomfortable or disorienting.
During the Canada 150 celebrations, I did my own micro-reparations by researching 10 Indigenous organizations and activists and donating $150 to each of them. I continue to support most of them financially, but my relationship to those donations has shifted. I think I used to see it as my sharing my privileged resources with “marginalized” groups. A power relationship in and of itself. Now, I still see my accountability to support these groups. But I also see that money as (insufficient) compensation for what those organizations, what those artists and activists, have contributed to my learning.
During Canada 150, my friend Raven, an Indigenous, mixed race, 2-Spirit multidisciplinary artist and activist from the Anishinaabek (Ojibwa) Nation, Treaty 4 in Manitoba, was documenting their experience of Canada Day. They talked about walking around with their camera, feeling huge distress at the spectacle of people publicly “celebrating genocide.”
I will admit that at the time, my quiet reaction to that comment was that it felt … overblown. Surely no one was *consciously* “celebrating genocide”? Surely we were celebrating the parts of Canada that we value, the very parts that could enable us to own our accountability, acknowledge our racism?
Somewhere in there, I shifted. I let myself listen to Raven instead of letting my reactions filter theirs. I see the truth in what they said. Celebrating the historical Canada IS celebrating the very structures that built those schools. The “fathers of Confederation” were literally the architects of the residential school system. Canada Day creates yet another opportunity to mentally gloss over those structures, mentally compartmentalize “celebrating that which is good about Canada” while temporarily laying aside the dark bits. (Although I don’t know when we actually dwell in the dark bits — that part is not institutionalized). That glossing over might have been easy to rationalize four years ago. It’s not possible to rationalize in the wake of the discovery of the graves of potentially thousands of babies taken from their families.
As my friend Alice said on facebook the other day, “I feel like most people I know can commit to a “genocide trumps fireworks” moral hierarchy.” I think that’s true. But recognizing this hierarchy is work, and we all have to do it.
Susan and I will be at her cottage for Canada Day. There is an annual “tour around the lake” festival. We talked about how participating would be more of a signal of being part of the lake community than it would be celebrating Canada Day, that we could hang our intersectional pride flag on the boat. We fantasized about handing people flyers with land acknowledgements on them. We talked it through.
“You know,” I said. “I do want to hang out on the lake, But I think I just won’t be able to see people joyfully tooling around with Canadian flags without being upset. And in the end, it’s not actually meaningful to “cancel” something unless it’s something you WANT to do.”
If it’s not pouring, we’ll go for a bike ride on Canada Day. We’ll do some reading and reflecting on our settler identity and shame. Consider concepts like “who does that land we call “crown” land really belong to?” And we’ll think hard about how to keep doing the unlearning and relearning that matters so much.
Cate Creede is a White queer Canadian directly descended from the earliest French settlers in Southwestern Ontario, who were part of the founding of Fort Detroit. She lives in the part of Toronto that is covered by Treaty 13 signed with the Mississaugas of the Credit. It’s the traditional territory of many nations including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat peoples and is now home to many diverse First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples.