Indigenous people are tired of explaining why Canada's history is nothing to celebrate.
I prefer not to identify as Canadian these days. There was a time when I was proudly Canadian, though that was more of an unexamined acceptance of what I had been raised to believe—that Canada was one of the best places in the world to live, that we are a country of diversity and acceptance, freedom and opportunity, and that to be Canadian is a privilege.
If you take it at face value, Canada, and being Canadian, is great, right? I mean, a country that provides health care to its citizens (provided they have citizenship, and an up-to-date health card), a place that welcomes refugees (if they manage to qualify following various bureaucratic and often costly legal obstacles), a peaceful country that has not engaged in (much) war (unless you consider the ongoing invasion and theft of Indigenous land), a place that celebrates diversity and strives to provide adequate canoe storage for Indigenous youth—what could possibly be wrong with being Canadian?
My father and his family came to Canada from Jamaica as a teen in 1965, though it wasn’t until the 90s that he swore an oath to the Queen and was granted Canadian citizenship. My mother’s father was raised to deny being Mohawk and Cree via his mother, and told to only identify as white, like his father. It wasn’t until years later that I truly understood the implications of this denial, and how combined with Bill C-31, it likely kept my grandfather and his siblings out of residential schools.
If you were to ask a few Indigenous people what they think of Canada, you would likely get a multitude of answers since, much like Canadians, Indigenous people do not all share the same views and opinions of things. However, if one were to poll the more than 600 First Nations, there would likely be a laundry list of reasons why Canada is problematic, and why the current celebration of Canada 150 is especially alienating for Indigenous people. For example, chronic underfunding of Indigenous children in welfare, broken treaties, failure to protect Indigenous women who are violently abused by police, ongoing imposed colonial patriarchy, and mismanagement of funds held in trust for Indigenous peoples, to name a few reasons.
The fact is, the entire Canada 150 narrative is exhausting. I mean, it is already played out, and it’s only April—especially the constant demand on Indigenous peoples to explain why Canada 150 is a problem. And what is even more tiresome is the inability for so many Canadians to take the colonial wool out of their ears and actually listen to Indigenous people.
Let’s look at some lesser celebrated Canadian history: 2008 began the five-year Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. The mandate of this commission was to inform Canadians of the truth about residential schools in Canada. Over the course of five years, survivors were made to relive some of the most horrific traumas imaginable, (*CW) including being starved, forced to participate in medical experiments, tortured in an electric chair, sexual abuse and torture, and other physical and mental torture. They were violently punished for speaking their Indigenous languages and bullied into speaking English only, their hair was cut and they were punished for doing anything related to their Indigenous culture. In addition, children were kidnapped from their communities and often prevented from seeing their families for years at a time. In the case of at least several thousand, they were killed and buried in unmarked mass graves.
All of these traumas were relived and retold by the survivors in order to compile a report to better help Canadians understand their own colonial and violent history.
It is important to note that prior to the TRC, average Canadians had no idea about the residential school system and the horrors that took place between the mid 1800s (just prior to Confederacy) and as recent as 1996—because the shameful truth was kept hidden from the precious Canadian canon. What little that was revealed to Canadians about residential schools was most often sugar coated as a project for educating “savages” (a term my mother was taught during her education in Catholic school) to help Indians assimilate into Canadian society, and hey, what could be wrong with that?
Much of what was wrong with the residential school system was revealed in the TRC’s 2015 report, despite the Canadian government withholding millions of documents from the commission in order to protect the grisly truth of its violently sinister past. The report contains some Calls to Action as part of the reconciliation process, including calls to implement supports for language revitalization, education, and this important item:
47. We call upon federal, provincial, territorial, and municipal governments to repudiate concepts used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous peoples and lands, such as the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius, and to reform those laws, government policies, and litigation strategies that continue to rely on such concepts.
This particular call to action is great in theory. However, if we truly examine what it means to “repudiate concepts used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous peoples and lands,” where does that leave Canada today?
If you consider the facts, the one obstacle to Canada becoming a truly sovereign nation 150 years ago was solving the “Indian problem,” as later infamously coined by Duncan Campbell Scott, by “killing the Indian in the child.” This project of astronomical horrors is critical to the foundation of Canada. It was identified by those early pioneers of pain that Indigenous people were not going to go away easily, and that the most efficient management of the Indian problem was to implement a multi-tiered, violent plan of attack on their very existence. But where in the Canada 150 narrative is this truth?
What has been revealed to Indigenous people since the TRC report, is that Canada and Canadians love the word reconciliation as a catch phrase and easy way to check a box without having to get messy. And the predictable reality is that beyond some basic rhetoric and lip service, Canada has no plans for truly being reconciliatory, or anything close to a Nation to Nation relationship with Indigenous people.
That’s predictable because Canada is still deeply invested in its colonial narrative, which is how it has the audacity to follow the TRC report with a celebration of 150 years of violent, colonial invasion on Indigenous land, and pretend that the findings of the TRC were somehow an anomaly and not truly a part of the foundation of Canada as a colonial state.
Jamaias DaCosta is a writer, performer, and co-host and producer of The Vibe Collective radio show, and producer of Indigenous Waves Radio, both on CIUT.