Canada’s Sesquicentennial: A Celebration of Survival and Hope

Canada Day 2017

On July 1st Canada marks 150 years since four former British colonies—Upper Canada (now Ontario), Lower Canada (now Quebec), New Brunswick and Nova Scotia—joined to form a confederation called the Dominion of Canada. Over the next century and a half, the country experienced massive growing pains to become the nation it is today: an imperfect, flawed, but forward-looking democracy. There will be celebrations tomorrow all over the country, and a government-sponsored gala on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. There will also be protesters, for example, a group of indigenous people who have said they will not “celebrate colonization.” The implication of that statement is that that’s what Canadians will be celebrating. Fact: I will not be celebrating that either, nor will anyone else I know. I will be celebrating 150 years of survival, and a renewed hope for continuous improvement.

We have had our troubles. To name but a few:

  • On Canada Day 1923, Chinese communities in British Columbia organized Chinese Humiliation Day to protest the Chinese Immigration Act that blocked most Chinese immigration to Canada, except students, operators of laundries, restaurants and stores, diplomats, and Canadian-born Chinese returning from education in China, though discrimination had been going on for decades. The act was not repealed until 1947. In 2006 the federal government made an official apology and provided financial compensation, but it took another eight years for the provincial government to apologize.
  • The government moved Japanese Canadians during World War II to inland internment camps from their homes on the West Coast. Men were separated from their families and sent to work camps. Families lost their homes, businesses, and many personal belongings, which were sold by the government to pay for the camps. It was not until 1988 that they received a formal apology and compensation.
  • In 1939 Canada turned away the ship St. Louis with 907 refugees on board because the passengers were Jews. They were seeking sanctuary from Nazi Germany. After Canada refused them entry, the ship sailed back to Germany. A reported 254 later died in concentration camps.
  • The policies of successive federal governments from confederation until the end of the 20th century was indisputably an attempt at cultural genocide against indigenous people. I wrote briefly about the horrendous circumstances surrounding the Indian residential school system that existed from the late 1880s until 1996. From 2008 to 2015 the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada examined the far-reaching consequences of the governments’ racist policies. The truth has been revealed; the reconciliation has yet to occur.

Canada is still a democratic confederation, comprising 10 provinces and 3 territories, forming the second largest country by area in the world (Russia is the largest). There are 35 million of us. According to US News, Canada is the second-best country to live in, after Switzerland. Canada has ranked among the top ten best countries based on a long and healthy life expectancy, level of education, and a decent standard of living, for the last decade by the United Nations Human Development Index. This is generally true, but not for everyone who lives here. It is hard to believe in a country so rich in natural resources, including having 20% of the world’s fresh water, that many indigenous communities have boil-water advisories.

But while there is a lot wrong with Canada, there is a lot that is very good. For the first time in living memory—perhaps the first time ever—we have a government that is publicly committed to improvement and reconciliation. Yesterday Prince Charles, with his wife, Camilla, started a 3-day visit to Canada in Iqaluit. He began by speaking in Inuktitut, and recognized that there was a 400-year history of interactions between the British people and the Inuit people. Last week Roberta Jamieson, a Mohawk lawyer and activist, and President and CEO of Indspire, an organization for “Indigenous education [for] Canada’s future”, stated that on Canada Day she will be celebrating “150 years of survival.” She described herself as a nation builder, and stressed that things must start to change: “It depends on what we do in the next 150 years that will count.” She is hopeful there will be steady improvement. So am I.

Happy Canada Day.

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