I have a lot on my mind and in my heart today as Canada marks 150 years of confederation.
This morning, I went to the West Dublin Market for my usual Saturday ritual: gathering with friends and community members for brunch and hugs and talk and laughter. On the brunch board was written "Mi'kma'ki 13,000" rather than Canada 150. I saw some Expose 150 pamphlets (produced by Solidarity Halifax) in people's hands. And there were also folks in red-and-white Canada Day hats and t-shirts. The market was its usual lively, warm self with no apparent friction between people holding different perspectives on this day.
That's my sweet, sweet bubble. And I love it and am deeply grateful for it.
However, the political landscape in the rest of Canada is not feeling so bubbly. There is frustration, there is lip service, there is activism, there is backlash. Feelings are all over the place – anger, resentment, acceptance, paternalism, hope, defiance, love, hatred: to me the nation feels alive with feelings right now.
And I believe that it is good that this is so. It feels like there is a lot more on the table than there has been in the past. It feels like there are a lot of people (including me) who are more open to sharing and listening, being in exchange with other people's – and peoples' – experiences.
Looking back to Canada's last "big" birthday...
In contrast, I remember Canada's last "big" birthday, the 125. It was 1992. And I was right at the heart of constitutional Canada that summer, working as a tour guide at the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa. I was 21. It was a plum gig – a decent-paying summer job – which I got by merit of a couple of things: my network of privilege (I was a student at the University of Toronto and learned about the job from someone I knew there) and regionalism (I was from Nova Scotia and suspect I was hired largely because I was a Nova Scotian candidate, and though my French was considerably weaker than it should have been, it must have been better than that of other NS applicants).
It was a difficult and weird summer for me. Brian Mulroney was in power, there was a referendum happening, and I spent most of the summer struggling desperately to bring my French up to an adequate level so I wouldn't get fired. Also, I was 21, pretty screwed up in general and plagued by typical young-adult pre-occupations like hoping to fall in love (or at least hook up), and acquiring a taste for beer.
I was also completely embedded in settler culture and entitlement. Ignorant AF. I had no idea that there were still residential schools operating (the last one closed four years later, in 1996). What little I knew of indigenous issues was incorrectly filed under "not my problem" "happened before I was born" "mostly happened in the US, not so much in Canada", etc. The narrative I learned growing up in Toronto in the 70s, that of a multi-cultural, affluent, urban, utopian Canada, was pretty much what I thought was happening for everyone across the country.
My young adulthood felt like that 1970s dream come to fruition for me: U of T gathered young adults from all over – foreign students and also recent immigrants, along with 1st, 2nd, 3rd through 8th and 9th generation settlers all swirled together in a big, mostly comfortable stew (or at least that's how it seemed so to me from my position of white privilege). But where were the people who had been living on this land for 15 and 20 and 100 generations? I do not remember meeting a single indigenous person at the University of Toronto.
And despite the parliamentary tour guide program's mandate to represent all regions of the country and the presence of people from different racialized groups in our cohort, there were no indigenous tour guides that summer. Or if there were members of our group with indigenous identities, I was not aware of it.
Oblivious. Unconcerned. Uninterested. I feel pretty certain that in those days, if I had been told of some common experiences of being indigenous in Canada, I would have been shocked – and disbelieving. I don't think I would have been able to wrap my head around the gap between the narrative I grew up with and the true lived experience of indigenous people who grew up here too, but on very different terms.
Closing the gap
I have learned a lot since 1992 (particularly in the last 10 years and most especially in the last 5 years, since the Idle No More movement was founded). I started to try to see the reality of things outside of my own assumptions and paradigms. I've learned some about the relationship between the state of Canada and the indigenous people who live here as well as the relationship between settlers and indigenous people and settler cultures and indigenous cultures. I have learned of poverty and inequality, cruelty, cultural imperialism, missing and murdered indigenous women, disproportionately high rates of incarceration of indigenous people, high rates of suicide, mental health concerns including substance abuse, sub-standard access to medical care and education as well as to safe, comfortable housing and clean water, a history of attempted and accomplished genocide (both cultural and literal) and a legacy of systemic racism that remains deeply entrenched today, a very convenient racism that seeks to legitimize the appropriation of land and many unfair, disrespectful and harmful "deals" involving resource extraction, pipelines, etc. And I have learned of resilience and courage and activism and environmentalism. Of forgiveness and generosity. Of healing. Of just and bitter anger. Of despair. Of hope.
#Canada150 / #resist150
Even just in the last year I have experienced some powerful shifts. For instance, last year, I didn't even think twice about going to my local firehall's Canada Day Strawberry Shortcake social. This year, I am not going. Instead, I have dedicated this day to further educate myself by reading the 94 Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People and this report on our current state of reconciliation which includes 11 suggested actions toward reconciliation (ones aimed at everyday people rather than at governments and institutions, like most of the TRC's).
Although I do not feel like waving a Canadian flag today, I do feel glad and grateful that I am Canadian. I believe we are talking about indigenous rights in a new way and to a new extent in this country. I'm grateful for the actions that people are taking, large and small.
- I'm glad for the people who overwhelmingly responded to this course offered by the University of Cape Breton.
- I'm grateful to CBC Indigenous for this article which includes a link to a live broadcast that I watched yesterday that filled me with humility and hope.
- I am grateful to my neighbours and community members who organized a Have a Heart day event this past February which I was able to attend
- I was glad to learn at that event that Nova Scotia's Department of Education is developing mandatory curriculum from indigenous perspectives for use in grades Primary-12.
- I was glad to have a reason to go to an elementary school spring concert this year and to see the kids singing songs in the Mi'kmaq language.
I am grateful that we have come the distance we have in the last 40 years, since I was in grade 1, and there was zero indigenous content in my school curriculum; and in the last 25 years, since I was a clueless parliamentary tour guide with a very distorted sense of Canada's identity and of my entitlements here; and in the last 5-10 years as indigenous issues, history and challenges have been brought forward for discussion and reconciliation and amends.
We still have a long way to go. I know that in my own heart and mind, there is still much territory to cover and much to learn. In the larger political sphere, I witness the frustration with "Gesture Politics" and the endless expectation that indigenous people must wait, ever longer, for justice, for environmental sustainability, for respect. I feel and I hope, that the tide is turning and that relationships between indigenous people and Canada will look very different by the time we reach the 175th anniversary of Canada's confederation.
Each of us has the opportunity rise up and take part in this process to help ensure that Canada's birthdays keep getting better as we move forward.