Original Kitchener, July 1, 2021
I’ve never been much of a Canuck Doodle Dandy. At this stage of my life, the fact that it is strawberry time here in our neck of the woods is more exciting than celebrating the achievement of settler home rule and a federation among the remnants of British and French colonial projects on this continent 154 years ago.
And yet, I’m feeling more devoted, more committed and more connected to Canada, the land, the waters, the peoples, the habitations, than I ever have before. It feels as though, when you go in deep enough, grow contrary enough, and think the whole thing over, under, around and through, you come out on the other side.
Observing Canada Day as a day of mourning, recognition and reflection in 2021 is not cancelling our annual celebration of becoming a modern independent nation state. On the contrary, it is transforming what had become a pale imitation of July 4 traditions in the U.S., with scattered displays of patriotic bunting, fireworks and holiday specials in the weekly flyer drop, into a deeply patriotic observance that holds the promise of redemption, reconciliation and restoration.
I’m a late settler, born on the other side of the Atlantic. I was too young to choose to come here. I became a citizen through my parents, without having to pass any test, swear any oath, or subject myself to any crowned sovereign. I was, however, exceedingly glad when we received those citizenship papers from our local MP (Lee Grills, the friendly milkman, a Diefenbaker Conservative), primarily because we could now go over the Thousand Islands Bridge and cross the border into the United States.
I’d been to Toronto and Ottawa by then. I’d outgrown the Trentonian tri-weekly and CJBQ a.m. radio from Belleville, and was ready to expand my horizons. We were late to television, but when it arrived in our home it came mainly from across the lake in Rochester, New York. Meanwhile, radio came into my room from all over the continent: Boston, New York, Buffalo, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Wheeling. The Toronto stations just weren’t cool.
Canada was a weak and lacklustre presence in my life, especially after I left Queen Elizabeth primary school to enter the segregated environment of Calvin Christian. The old guard Tory, Loyalist strain, still a palpable presence in those days, felt hostile to us as newcomers, especially down in the County, on the other side of the Bay of Quinte.
These circumstances turned me into something of a revolutionary republican with a decidedly continental outlook.
It is only lately that it occurs to me that the Canadian project from 1867 on is actually an imitation of U.S.-style self-determination followed by continental expansion, driven by a version of Manifest Destiny, borrowed almost entirely from the original. A kind of upstart Pepsi to the classic Coke.
So when it comes to the centuries-long horrors that have accompanied how the west was won, plus the south, plus the north, on the continental mainland as well as the Caribbean plantation lands, it is essentially one story, whether the original colonizers were French, English, Netherlandish, Iberian or Scandinavian.
For me, the main difference between classic Manifest Destiny and our continental expansion story is that Canada’s path towards home rule has been peaceful and incremental: We never made a radical break with all that had come before, and we never declared that, when things appear to be out of line with what we take to be self-evident truths, people should rise up in arms, overthrow their government, conspire with foreign enemies if need be, and, once separation is achieved, confiscate the property of those who held to other versions of the truth, and drive them into exile.
That is one hell of an idea to found a new nation on. But it has been the standard storyline for how and why self-determining nations are built ever since.
Emphasizing the colonial or imperial aspect over the basic act of settlement itself not only obscures the honest truth, it actually appropriates the ideas, principles and methods of the rebels who rose up, in part to fight for freedom to encroach on Indigenous homelands on the other side of the Appalachian divide. The raised fist, the bloody splatters and the mutilated colonial statue are simply “don’t tread on me,” “give me liberty or give me death”, and “thus always to tyrants” all over again.
Fighting and killing are what the separatist nationalists have always respected, and even preferred: An uprising provides justification for dealing out reciprocal death, and inevitably, annexing yet more land. The peacekeepers, the prophets, the orators, the storytellers, the knowledge keepers, the ambassadors, the elders, the matriarchs, the healers, the drummers, the singers, the dancers are generally ignored, and perhaps even feared, while the warriors, majestically appointed in full battle regalia, have automobiles, cities and sports franchises named after them
My newly discovered patriotic sentiments are anchored on the fact that Canada’s story has never been disrupted in such an abrupt and bloody manner. I firmly believe that this gives us advantages for dealing with those centuries-long injustices that have been ignored for so long.
Maybe it is living in a settlement founded by pacifists that has drawn me in this direction. But, as the abolitionists I studied for my dissertation used to emphasize, following Jeremiah, a pacific stance can be false prophecy: “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.”
I am conscious of the fact that if it hadn’t been for Canadian soldiers fighting for the liberation of my homeland, there would have been a swastika on my birth certificate. And now we’re talking about historical wrongs that are comparable, in significant ways, to the burden of blame, guilt and shame that people in Germany have to bear. That’s what it means when they describe our national policies and practices as genocidal.
Words may fail, but we shouldn’t flinch from the truth. To address these wrongs, we need to take full ownership of the errors, crimes, sins … there is no term that adequately conveys the gravity and the enormity of it all.
The longer view of what Canada represents, over 400 years rather than just over 150, actually deepens our complicity, both with what Atlantic European powers and interests did to men, women and children in Africa, as well as to the people and nations of this hemisphere. The long view doesn’t exonerate us in any way, but it connects us with both the oppressors and the oppressed in ways that oblige us to act.
As a settler, and as a citizen who has voted in every election, federal, provincial and municipal, since I reached voting age, I accept full complicity. The nation state of which I am a citizen did these things; my votes approved this course of action, and my silence has helped sustain it.
These tragedies are not primarily the work of a wily Prime Minister who has been dead for 130 years, and not the invention of a True Grit reformer inspired by nascent “evidence-based” social engineering practices, nor are they the work of any Queen or King on a faraway throne, nor of any church, association or for-profit corporation that was contracted to provide services to help move the modern, democratic nation-building process forward, nor any soldier, policeman, prison guard, teacher or preacher who was assigned related duties. They were all, even their royal majesties, serving their country, serving this country, and this country is us.
The truth is that the Indigenous peoples of this land, their languages, their customs, their stories, their family ties, and their very bodily existence have been perceived as obstacles to our freedoms, our way of life, and our prosperity from the outset, especially from the time the fur trade began losing its lustre, and when we realized that our 8,890 km border with the revolutionary republic no longer needed defending.
Canada — i.e. we, us — wanted these people de-cultured, de-natured, properly washed, dressed and shorn; trained for domestic or field work. We wanted them safely penned up beyond the pale, yet readily accessible in designated concentration zones for various purposes, including so that we could readily take their children away because we were dead certain we knew how to nurture them better than their mothers, aunties, fathers, uncles, grandparents. We wanted the Indigenous population gone, vanished from the True North strong and free: either dead and buried in best forgotten graves, or dissolved into the national melting pot that renders all ingredients into what we consider proper, decent, normal. Even our democratic practices have been an instrument for social and cultural engineering.
The heart of the matter is that settlement itself, compounded by settler home rule, both here and in the revolutionary republic to the south, lies at the root of this horror.
The fact that we’re beginning to open our eyes to such truths is a good sign. We’re beginning to realize how wrong we have been, and that’s a critical step towards doing better.
My hope is that Canada’s true destiny may not be dominating the continent, or carrying on with wresting a fleeting and devastating kind of wealth from the land, the waters, the earth below and the sky above. Maybe Canada’s calling is to show the world how to begin repairing the damage that revolutionary zeal, “man shall have dominion” cultural and environmental arrogance, and exclusionary national self determination projects have caused over that last two centuries and more.
This is not advocating national self-loathing, guilt or shame. It’s not counter-erasure, holier than thou socio-political purity, or another manifestation of cancel culture. It is standing up for Canada, and standing up as a Canadian.