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Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

"O Canada! Our home and native land?"

Article by: Ella Macdonald

The Past Unearthed

On May 21, 2021, Dr. Sarah Beaulieu, an anthropologist at the University of the Fraser Valley in British Columbia, conducted a ground survey of the apple orchard near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, once Canada’s largest that, at one point, housed 500 Indigenous children and teenagers. Using ground-penetrating radar (GPR), Beaulieu discovered evidence of up to 200 unmarked gravesites containing the bodies of children that went missing from the Kamloops school. Less than a week later, Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced the devastating discovery that confirmed claims made by Indigenous knowledge-keepers for years - that the area surrounding the former school was a mass grave.

Following the Kamloops survey, residential school mass graves continue to be found across the country and small towns like Marieval, Saskatchewan, began making international headlines, intensifying the controversy surrounding Canada Day. In June 2021, Prime Minister Trudeau reiterated that he accepts the conclusion that Canada committed genocide against Indigenous people, made in a 2019 inquiry into the country’s missing and murdered Indigenous women.

Truth and Reconciliation

As the graves were quickly discovered, buzzwords such as “truth and reconciliation” began to appear everywhere in the media. The last residential school closed in 1996, and Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) launched in 2008. The TRC resulted from the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history, that aimed to compensate residential school survivors for the physical and emotional damage they suffered.

However, the concept of truth and reconciliation largely pre-dated 2008. One could argue that the idea of fighting to preserve the truth and keep the peace between Indigenous groups and colonial settlers was an Indigenous goal ever since the European landing, although these relations quickly soured as the colonists began to occupy and exploit the land of its resources.

Whose “Home and Native Land”?

The 20th century was fraught with harmful stereotypes of Indigenous people depicting the European ‘discovery’ of what is now Canada. Today this racism sadly continues to skew history in favour of the colonial settlers that stole the land for themselves. Misrepresentations about Indigneous people, such as those that depict them as ‘noble savages,’ sought to excuse settler actions, and encourage the assimilationist practices that attempted to eradicate Indigeneity in Canada.

Alongside these stereotypes came the myth that prior to the European landing, Canada was ‘terra nullis’ (Latin for ‘uninhabited land’). Clearly, these two misconceptions contradict each other, and only aim to excuse the actions of the land’s colonisers. The land’s history did not begin in 1867, nor did it start when the British and French arrived on Canadian soil. Before the arrival of the Europeans, Canada was called Turtle Island by some Indigenous groups who inhabited the land since time immemorial - at least 13,000 years before July 1, 1867. Although often ignored, it is another reason why Canada Day has come under fire repeatedly in the last few years.

Assimilationist Roots

Canada has an official policy of multiculturalism and is often described using the metaphor of the ‘Canadian mosaic.’ In other words, Canadians retain their individual cultures, while being equal citizens. In theory, this sounds ideal, however, in practice groups of people, especially Indigenous people, have been discriminated against and forced throughout history to relinquish their cultures and traditions.

Residential schools run by the government-backed Catholic Church, were extreme examples of this assimilation policy - where the motto was to “kill the Indian within the child.” In the present day, generational trauma from this cultural genocide affects Indigenous families and communities across Canada. Many choose not to observe Canada Day, due to the simple fact that Canada repressed Indigenous identity on the path to where it is today.

The Orange Shirt and Beyond

Problems of the past are not the only reason why Canada Day has become contentious. Beyond Orange Shirt Day/Every Child Matters, a movement that works to honour those lost and still healing from the impact of residential schools, the last few years in Canada have been filled with Indigenous activism against rampant environmental racism. Since 2010, the Wet’suwet’en have protested against the instalment of a $6.6 billion natural gas pipeline in Northern British Columbia (read more on the Office of the Wet’suwet’en website). At Fairy Creek on Vancouver Island, activists protest the logging of old growth trees on Pacheedaht territory. Over the past few years protesters have faced off against the RCMP, who have attempted to infringe on their rights to demonstrate countless times. A timeline of events and information on the mission can be found at The Last Stand website.

On Canada’s East Coast, Nova Scotia acts as a prime example of big companies threatening the sacred lands of the Mi’kmaq repeatedly over the course of the last decade. The documentary “There’s Something in the Water” details events such as the pollution of Boat Harbour and the Alton Gas project on the Shubenacadie River. Although activists have succeeded in some cases, the fight to protect the environment against the government and big business is ongoing in many areas of the country.

The List Goes On

Indigenous activist Skyla Hart, recognized for her refusal to stand for the singing of ‘O Canada’ at her high school in Winnipeg, Manitoba, sums up the sentiment surrounding Canadian patriotism perfectly. Hart says, “This country is a colonised country, and I do not want to stand for a colonised country.”

It is important to recognize Indigenous peoples are not a homogenous entity and should not be treated as such. Today there are over 600 First Nations/bands in Canada, each having their own distinct culture and values. Therefore, one’s views on Canada Day and the meaning behind it will, as always, be unique to the individual.

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