It’s July 1st, otherwise known as Canada Day. This year, for the first time, Canadians are being asked not to celebrate it.
Given the past few weeks, in which we’ve seen confirmation of hundreds and hundreds of dead Indigenous children buried in unmarked graves at residential school sites, the request not to celebrate is absolutely appropriate. As it was put by Maura Winkup, one of the organizers of the #CancelCanadaDay event in my city, “If your neighbour was having a funeral, especially a funeral for a child, you wouldn’t go off celebrating it and putting off fireworks, because that’s extremely disrespectful.”
Who could argue with this? What person with a heart could think of those children who died lonely and scared, sick or starving or beaten or freezing, and not feel sorrow for their plight? This is clearly not a time for partying.
In a heavy-hearted way, I am glad that these children have been found. That they are being mourned, not just by their own relatives, but by millions of people in Canada. This sorrow is our due. If there is any measure of peace and healing to be had by Indigenous communities through this collective grieving, then we do right to engage in it wholeheartedly.
It has been a few years now that I have been sitting with the growing discomfort of knowing that many Indigenous people who live in the place we call Canada do not consider themselves Canadians. And learning why. I have done a lot of reflection on what it means to me to be Canadian, and why I have been proud, in the past, to call myself such. This has been the aspect of my study of Indigenous history and teachings with which I have personally struggled the most.
My Canadian identity began forming in childhood, and it started with gratitude. Canada is the place that welcomed my parents when they fled the United States so that my dad would not be obliged to kill Vietnamese people. That was a big deal to them, and consequently to their children.
This sense of identity and gratitude increased when I spent a year abroad and realized what my Canadian passport – not to mention the flag badge on my backpack – meant to the world. For whatever reason, Canadians were seen as nice and polite and… good. And I did my utmost to live up to that, knowing that when you travel, whether you like it or not, you are an ambassador for your homeland.
As a teacher, I have always insisted that students be respectful during the anthem. Not of the lyrics, per se. Those we discuss in both English and French, and they are (in both languages) full of baloney in the form of European and religious elitism and patriarchal military supremacy. But I have always asked students to take that moment each morning to consider why they are fortunate to be here. I think that this reflection is important.
I should admit, also, that I have always loved Canada’s flag. Visually, I think it’s beautiful. And the maple tree is a powerful symbol – keeping humans and so many creatures alive, not only with the usual oxygen and shade, but also with the sweet calories that sustained life when food was at its scarcest. One of the ways that the First Peoples survived for so many millennia.
I wish that it didn’t represent colonialism, and the horrors that has entailed. I wish so many non-Indigenous Canadians didn’t consider it a badge of entitlement.
The thing is, automatic patriotism is a problem. The more I learn and see of the world, the more I believe that if you call yourself “patriotic”, you have never thought critically about your country. Firstly, the word itself sets you firmly in the patriarchy. Secondly, how much credit can you actually take for the place where you live? If you were born in Canada, you didn’t even have to work hard to get here. What makes it yours? What makes you better for being here? What are you contributing to the fabric of the country? What have you done to prepare this place for future generations?
My celebrations of Canada Day in the past have, in essence, been expressions of my gratitude that I get to be here. I am not the only Canadian who is thankful for things that, in part, characterize the country. The socialized medicine, the public school systems that work (slowly but surely) for equity and innovation, the social safety nets that (for example) kept many people afloat during the pandemic, the policies that have accepted refugees and immigrants from all over the world, the Constitution that protects LGBTQ2S+ rights, and so on. None of these systems is perfect, or even approaching perfection. But I think, or hope, that they reflect a tendency toward humanity, toward care for the collective, on the part of the people who make up Canada.
And to be honest, I believe that the best things about this country are the things that have surely been influenced by Indigenous ways of being, whether we realize it or not. Care for the community, sharing, generosity. Holistic education. Acceptance of differences. Attachment to the land, and deep appreciation of the nature that provides what we need.
In the same vein, the worst things about Canada are related to the Indigenous ways of being that we have ignored, cast aside, and actively tried to destroy. Devastation of nature, privatization, the greed of capitalism, systematic exploitation. And of course genocide.
How criminal that so many of the systems I benefit from are systems that often fail Indigenous people. Medical institutions that treat them as lesser. Social safety nets that don’t exist for them. Supposedly protective services, like child welfare and police, that all too often worsen – or even ruin – their lives.
As a white Canadian with a house and a job and the benefits of all those good things mentioned above, I am party to all the bad things too. My existence and way of life are based on all of that. So I am up for the sorrow and the discomfort: they are mine as well. I am more than willing to take this day for the official disruption of my Canadian identity, knowing how the identities of Indigenous people have been not just disrupted but violated in this land, every day, for centuries.
This is not “cancel culture.” This is striving for better. Better understanding, true relationships, genuine equity, respectful society. Isn’t that what we want, if we care about Canada?
It is heartening today to see the seas of orange that have replaced the typical Canada Day seas of red. I am moved to witness the solidarity in mourning, and I am desperately hopeful that this is a turning point. That finally, Canadians can start to understand and motivate themselves to learn more, so that Truth and Reconciliation can finally be real.
If we, as a tentatively united people, can take this moment and make this country we share into something new, better, more whole and healed… Then we might truly be a country to be proud of.