False Fireworks: Canada and its indigenous populations after 150 years

Image credit: unicellular

We don’t often turn to popular celebrities, in 2017, for guidance on issues of political import. Joni Mitchell’s ‘star maker machinery’ does an even better job at churning out popular songs at the expense of cultural responsibility today than it did when the songstress first penned the lyric in 1974. As Canada hurtled through its 150th anniversary celebrations this past weekend, however, ushering in a constellation of indigenous protests along with the expected festivities, it is a statement by The Tragically Hip’s Gord Downie which rings most true to me: ‘we are not’, Downie laments, ‘the country we thought we were’.

Like all important birthdays, Canada’s 150th has raised serious questions of identity. Media at home and abroad has engaged in a self-reflexive discussion about what it means to be Canadian and the consensus seems to be, as usual, that it’s hard to sum a country as diverse as Canada up without resorting to cliché.

What is undeniably certain, however, is that Canada still has a long way to go in order to live up to its friendly and peace loving reputation.

Hauling indigenous protestors off Parliament Hill, just in time for the day’s performative celebrations of country on July 1st, Canadian officials did the national identity itself a disservice.

‘We’re out here dispelling those myths that everything is OK in the Trudeau government… because nothing is happening’, said Tori Cress to the CBC about a recent protest in Toronto. ‘Everything is crisis and poverty. Water crises, suicide crises, missing women crisis, drug overdoses, rampant alcoholism, unemployment rates are 80 per cent and up. These things are not changing and photo opportunities are not making changes’.

These issues are neither new nor unknown to us. The 2016 crisis in the community of Attawapiskat in which dozens of youth attempted suicide, many of them succeeding, and the case of the twelve year old indigenous boy who died of exposure escaping a residential school half a century ago, that which inspired Downie’s most recent album, are just two tragic and easily identifiable examples. Each serves as evidence for what is, for the Canadians who sometimes prefer not to bear the name, a pervasive, hopeless reality — a nightmare which shows no signs of abating.

So as celebrations reach full tilt in cities across the land of polar bears, poutine, and hockey, a cold hard reality check is long overdue.

This is the country we have, but not the country any Canadian truly wants our nation to be.  There is, of course, no easy solution, but we would all do better to stop congratulating ourselves for electing a prime minister with a photogenic smile and laudable feminist policies in order to confront the darker realities of the land we call home. You can’t hide a history, or an identity, behind fireworks and maple leaf cheek paint. 

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