By Dana Wensley
This Canada Day may be the one Canada’s been avoiding for 155 years. The one it’s been hoping wont happen since Canada was united into a single country on July 1, 1867.
The signs are there. We’ve seen student protests in Quebec over tuition hikes and Bill 78. The ‘Occupy movement’ protests have not yet faded into distant memory. And today, in Onion Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, Clayton Tootoosis, a 22 year old-year-old Cree man, says he plans to burn the Canadian flag to symbolise ‘the cleansing of our land’.
Is this Canada Day going to be the one when Canada joins the ranks of other post-colonial countries and the national holiday ceases to be about fireworks and fun, but about addressing deeply entrenched issues of social justice?
In Australia, which celebrates its national holiday on January 26, Prime Minister Julia Gillard was trapped in a restaurant in Canberra after activists began chanting anti-government slogans and banging on the walls and windows. This, after 2000 protestors gathered outside in a ‘tent embassy’ erected on the lawns of Old Parliament House in Canberra to protest Australia’s past and present treatment of its indigenous aboriginal population. The image of Gillard, frightened and shoeless, after escaping in the arms of her bodyguard, symbolises the unresolved problems in Australia and the government’s uneasy relationship with its Aboriginal peoples.
In New Zealand, Prime Minister John Key’s speech celebrating their national day (Waitangi Day commemorated on February 6th) was drowned out by protestors, and he eventually gave up and left among tight security. It is traditional in New Zealand for the Prime Minister to attend celebrations at the place where New Zealand’s founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi, was signed in 1840 between representatives of the Crown and the indigenous Maori chiefs. Since the 1970s this day has been a day of protest and controversy, where grievances are aired and debates held.
These are the countries with similar histories to Canada in relation to treatment of indigenous populations. But somehow the closest Stephen Harper has come to replicate Julia Gillard’s ‘Cinderella-like’ episode (loosing her shoe which was eventually returned to her by protestors), is when he is ushered into celebrations in Ottawa guarded by the RCMP. No demonstrations. No disruption. Not even any ugly sisters to spoil his fairytale moment.
So why does Canada Day remain a peaceful day when its counterparts across the world are days of reckoning for their leaders? Are things really better here?
Last year was not a good one in many ways for the government. There was Attawapiskat. There was the United Nations criticism of Canada for letting 800,000 households go hungry. There is the health statistics of the First Nations, showing substantial Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal health differences with lower life expectancy, higher rates of injury and accidental death, and higher rates of sudden-infant death.
So why does Canada Day remain a peaceful day where the most exciting thing that happens is dog owners complaining of their pets jumping onto laps and shaking under tables when the fireworks start going off?
Is it just that the indigenous populations have abandoned Canada Day all together in favour of Aboriginal Day celebrated a week earlier? The ultimate form of protest is, after all, to ignore Canada Day’s significance at all.
Perhaps the answer is this. In the words of Richard Wagamese, an Ojibwa writer writing in the Canadian Geographic when he says: ‘There are no straight lines in Ojibwa culture, so there were no grids or maps or delineations to assume or claim territory . . . [. . .] . . . there is no word for boundary in the Ojibwa language. There is no word for map either. There was only ever the land.’
This is something to consider on Canada Day. Something else to celebrate when we consider what the day means to us. As Canadians. As people. No matter where we come from. No matter how we came to this country that is now called Canada. It is the land that unites us. And I hope this Canada Day it is not used as a tool to divide.
Dana Wensley has a Ph.D. in Law from King’s College, London (England). Previously, she worked as an assistant editor at the London based Bulletin of Medical Ethics, and was senior research fellow at the University of Otago (New Zealand). This article was distributed by Troy Media.