By: Jacklyn Gilmor
Sparkling colours splashed the sky this year as fireworks rained down over every city. A sea of red and white clothing flooded the streets on July 1, and figure eights cut the Parliament Hill ice rink as families skated together in honour of Canada 150.
Although Canada Day usually looks this whimsical, 150 seemed to bring about a deeper undercurrent of tension, resistance, and discontent with the way things are celebrated.
2017 was a mosaic of mixed feelings about an anniversary that evokes largely contrasting opinions and feelings among Canadians. Some felt that recognizing 150 years since confederation was overlooking the much longer history of Indigenous people on this land, while other felt that a country’s anniversary is to be celebrated with joy. 150 - also known as a sesquicentennial - is certainly a significant number. However, the number didn’t leave everyone smiling with sparklers in hand.
The year’s celebrations were met with a counter-movement called ‘Resistance 150’, which can be found on Twitter, as well as in the many Indigenous-minded activities including demonstrations and cultural events. In one demonstration, protesters gathered on Parliament Hill before Canada Day, setting up a teepee beside the stage where main celebrations were to be held.
Other ways to resist have included setting up a camp in Ontario for Indigenous youth to learn about and celebrate their culture. It was created by the group who created the #Resistance150 movement.
Others have shown their resistance not just through social involvement, but in writing.
Nickita Longman is a member of the George Gordon First Nation, and works in Treaty 4 Territory in Regina. She writes for a non-profit writing organization and focuses on Indigenous literature. As an Indigenous woman, Longman feels that 150 celebrations have been ignorant of the struggles of her people.
“Canada 150 has left a bad taste in my mouth,” she said in an email. She said that the 150 celebrations are another form of erasure of Indigenous peoples and culture.
“How can we opt for millions of dollars spent on fireworks and cake when many of our own go without drinkable water?” she said. According to Health Canada as of November this year, there are at least 95 long-term drinking water advisories for First Nations across the country, excluding British Columbia.
Longman also noted that the anniversary aligns with the Era of Reconciliation.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) released its Calls to Action in 2015, with 52 of its recommendations falling under ‘Reconciliation’. Indigenous peoples and the rest of Canada. Number 45, section iv. says to “reconcile Aboriginal and Crown constitutional and legal orders to ensure that Aboriginal peoples are full partners in Confederation, including the recognition and integration of Indigenous laws and legal traditions in negotiation and implementation processes involving Treaties, land claims, and other constructive agreements.”
Despite the many calls that have yet to be implemented by the federal government, Reconciliation was actually one of the themes of this year’s celebrations. (The other themes were diversity and inclusion, and youth and the environment.)
The federal government also promoted National Aboriginal Day on June 21 as part of Celebrate Canada, creating opportunities for annual community events. It also emphasized a ‘nation to nation relationship’ between the Crown and Indigenous peoples in its events, which was recommended by the TRC.
In the prime minister’s Canada Day statement, Justin Trudeau recognized the celebrations as well as the history of Indigenous peoples on the land.
“As we mark Canada 150, we also recognize that for many, today is not an occasion for celebration,” he said. “Indigenous Peoples in this country have faced oppression for centuries. As a society, we must acknowledge and apologize for past wrongs, and chart a path forward for the next 150 years – one in which we continue to build our nation-to-nation, Inuit-Crown, and government-to-government relationship with the First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Nation.”
Celebrating in solidarity
Some Canadians decided to celebrate Canada Day this year, while also acknowledging that it isn’t for everyone. Cheyenne Bholla, a first year journalism student at Ryerson University in Toronto, said that she thinks Canada 150 should be celebrated, but that it makes sense why some people are angry about it. She described watching fireworks in July and feeling excited at the time. However, she said she realized after doing some research, and through her courses at school, that 150 was more complicated than she’d originally thought.
“Canada Day in general is kind of undermining the struggle that Indigenous people went through. Obviously they’re mad about [a celebration of] 150 years [since] the beginning of Canada, because they’ve been here for longer,” Bholla said.
She believes Canadians would benefit from educating themselves about Indigenous history in Canada, especially regarding residential schools. That way, people would understand where Indigenous people are coming from, she said.
What do we have to celebrate?
Canadian Heritage’s senior executive director of Canada 150, Andrew Campbell, believes that despite any tension, Canadians had plenty to celebrate this year. He emphasized the diversity of the events and projects that took place this year to illustrate Canada 150: some celebrating the anniversary, and some critiquing it. He discussed the many artistic achievements that were put out, including the Toronto International Film Festival’s (TIFF) showing of Canadian films, and the “sesquies” featured by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO). “Sesquies” are short pieces that were featured this year as part of TSO’s Canada Mosaic project. The 150 Years Young project, created by Apathy is Boring, was another key art project for the anniversary. The organization gathered photos and captions to demonstrate the impact millennials can have, and projected them onto buildings in major cities across the country.
Among those that took a more critical stance on the mile stone were Mary Walsh’s comedy show Canada, It’s Complicated—which features a song called The Foundation of Our Nation is a Big Fat Lie— and The Walrus Talks National Tour, hosted by The Walrus, which touched on such topics as sitting for the national anthem.
Campbell said that some of his favourite moments this year were participating in a canoe racing ceremony, dancing on Multiculturalism Day to Celtic music, and watching TIFF’s Canadian films. He said that Canada has a lot to work on when it comes to Indigenous relations, but that the community-building, the environmental and youth-oriented initiatives (like Participaction’s 150 playlist, which was compiled to motivate physical activity) were worth celebrating.
Over the course of a year filled with celebrations, a wide variety of opinions, events, and discussions took place. Some supported 150 with glowing hearts. Others felt we have a much longer way to go before we can light the sparklers.
Campbell said that the ability for Canadians to have those discussions amid celebrations, while still respecting different views, is “the greatness of Canada.”
“We do have a lot of elements to be extremely proud of, and we do have a lot of elements that are extremely complicated,” he said. “150 was a time where we were able to look at all of them, but then look with hope towards the future.”