It’s begun. Canada’s 150th birthday celebrations. Cities are decked. Facebook has updated us all. At a cost of $300 million, events will be staged across the country to mark this momentous occasion. But what is it that is being celebrated?
What is Canada?
Is Canada the magnificence of the Prairies, the sparkling of the Pacific and the Atlantic? Is it the spread of beautiful trees, water and rock? Is it the Salmon or the Loon that are within the borders of the place that is Canada?
No it isn’t. Those have existed for millennia before Canada came to be, and largely were in better shape till Canada came along.
Is it the people you love? Your friends that you have grown up with? The laughter and joy that is family?
No it isn’t. That is your community — and your community does not include everyone that lives here. For there are many inside this place called Canada who you do not love, and many that don’t love you.
Canada is a set of laws and policies that govern institutions (schools, prisons, hospitals, border authorities, police, state funded media, etc). It is a system of government where a few individuals develop these laws and policies, never checking back on them with any of us.
And this Canada has a terrible history and present of exclusion and oppression. This Canada came to be through the mass murder of Indigenous peoples, a cross country collaborative attempt to destroy Indigenous culture and way of life. A project referred to as Colonialism. And building on this foundational injustice, this Canada has been on a war path against women, migrants, queer and trans people, the sick, wildlife and the land and air itself ever since. This Canada exists to define who is Canadian, and therefore define who is not Canadian. This exclusion happens at a number of levels — first so many millions are denied the ability to live here or live here permanently. Those that do get permission to live here (citizenship) still face systemic barriers. This Canada has a chequered history of increasing warand supporting underdevelopment around the world.
But I’m proud of Canada for women’s rights/LGBTQ rights/charter of rights…
When women (British national, largely white women) asked to be considered as persons, Canadian government lawyers fought against them in Supreme Court and they were defeated. They were forced to go to the United Kingdom to have this ruling overturned. When Dr Henry Morgentaler provided abortion services, his clinic was raided; he was arrested, taken to court, and sentenced to 18 months in prison.
Women’s rights is just one example, every instance of expansion of rights in Canada is a result of communities of people organizing, and Canada, that is the laws, policies and institutions, opposing those changes. Take LGBTQ rights for example, laws for decriminalization were hard fought for and even after they were passed were not upheld. It took riots and protests following Toronto Police raids of bathhouses in February 1981 for significant change in policies. Yet despite it, as recently as November 2016, Toronto Police have been raiding public parks to target largely racialized gay men.
One of the most fundamental symbols of ‘Canada’ is the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This too was not granted by Canada. Modelled after the UN Declaration of Human Rights — which was created, in part, to limit the power of anti-colonial struggles against European and American powers — the Charter of Rights and Freedom was gravely resisted by most of Canada’s provinces and was only passed once it included a clause allowing governments to opt out. Once passed, it has had to be repeatedly tested in the courts. In every one of those instances, Canada has been on the side of restricting rights, its lawyers in court fighting against people who are trying to assert and use the Charter for greater good. Even when courts have supported the Charter, Canada has failed to uphold its end of the bargain. In 2013, for example, the Supreme Court insisted that Canada’s sex work laws were unconstitutional. The government was given one year to bring forth better laws, but instead it created worse laws.
The rights and protections that we value in our society, be it the Charter or labour rights, or free speech, or any others, each of these were not granted by Canada but rather were fought against by Canada. To fold those histories of resistance in to these 150th year celebrations is to erase the history of the many people who struggled against Canadian laws, policies, police, and were imprisoned and brutalized for it. These rights and protections must be celebrated not as Canada, but as victories against Canada.
Celebrate or reflect?
Anniversaries are when we mark one turn around the sun. And anniversaries are not always good. Sometimes we mark the day we lost someone, or a tragedy that we hope to avoid in the future.
Canada — that is the institutions that make up Canada — has come to be through colonialism, and has existed to suppress rights of living beings and the natural world alike. These are not attributes to celebrate. Rather, it is time to seriously consider the multigenerational and ongoing trauma that is Canada and gather together to determine ways in which we can finally move beyond this Canada to communities of justice, dignity, and respect for all living and non living beings.
This article has been reprinted from Medium with permission.