Canada’s unsettling sesquicentennial

To “unsettle” means to disturb or discomfit. But in post-colonial or anti-colonial terms, to “unsettle” means to dismantle the systemic and institutional mechanisms of oppression that have been put in place by an imperial or occupying power with the intention of keeping an occupied populace docile or subservient. For Canada, the idea of unsettling has particular resonance for Indigenous populations who have been subject to settler colonial suppression since first contact, enforced by legal instruments such as treaties and the Indian Act, all of which have had the practical effect of advancing the interests of European colonizers at the expense of the people who have inhabited Turtle Island for centuries.

Today, Canada celebrates the 150th anniversary of Confederation, and though the nation has many reasons to be justifiably proud of its history and accomplishments, in the area of Indigenous rights and the treatment of its First Nations peoples, Canada and its successive governments have been a dismal failure. The 2015 final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission addressing the history of Indigenous oppression including – but certainly not limited to – the reprehensible legacy of the residential school system provided a blistering indictment of Canadian neglect and mismanagement of Indigenous affairs and painted an horrendous portrait of a program of enforced assimilation and betrayal of the commitments entered into through treaties that have been intentionally misinterpreted and ignored throughout the country’s existence.

In 2008, then Prime Minister Stephen Harper stood in the House of Commons and issued a full and public apology on behalf of the government of Canada and all Canadian citizens for “failing to protect” Indigenous communities from the depredations of residential schools, “institutions [that] gave rise to abuse or neglect and were inadequately controlled.” Though such an apology was unquestionably welcome and long overdue, its practical effect – in the sense of leading to concrete action to address current and past mistreatment – was limited. As Murray Sinclair, chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said in 2015, “Words are not enough.”

That said, words – especially those spoken by Indigenous people themselves – can offer a prelude to action. And the path to true reconciliation begins with true dialogue and true understanding.

Those who wish to celebrate Canada while also acknowledging the evils of the past and are unsure of what actions might be appropriate in attempting to move on to a more just and equitable future could do worse this Canada Day than to seek out a new volume of essays called Surviving Canada: Indigenous Peoples Celebrate 150 Years of Betrayal. The volume, edited by Kiera L. Lander and Myra J. Tait and published by Winnipeg’s ARP Books, is valuable because it provides access to Indigenous voices writing about their own experiences of colonialism and its attendant ills. Contributors include noted Indigenous writers, artists, and thinkers such as Robert Jago, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Dan George, and Waubgeshig Rice, along with lesser known academics, poets, essayists, and visual artists. The collection also includes essays by non-Indigenous academics and experts on issues of colonialism and Canadian law.

“For many, Canada’s 150th anniversary is a celebration of independence of state and a history of national achievement,” writes Felicia Sinclair in her essay, “Got Tolerance?” But Sinclair adds that for Indigenous people, Canada’s sesquicentennial “represents 150 years of strategic oppressive and coercive policies and actions” inflicted in the name of assimilation and a capitalistic notion of progress. In a chapter on Canada’s history of enforcing its will through “European forms of sovereign violence,” Jobb Arnold writes, “Canada continues to use sovereign state violence to empower corporate industrialism and dominate Indigenous-led land defenders and water protectors through criminalization and intimidation.” In a separate essay, Jeff Corntassel and Christine Bird go even further, stating baldly, “Canada is a serial killer.”

As Canadians celebrate the achievements of their country, they do so against a backdrop of realities for Indigenous people that remain hidden in most conversations about our national tolerance and goodwill. According to one report earlier this year, the community of Shoal Lake 40 First Nation has not had clean drinking water for close to two decades. Suicide rates among Indigenous peoples are markedly higher than those of the general population. And at the beginning of 2017, a state of emergency was declared after a rash of suicides on the Attawapiskat reservation in Northern Ontario. These statistics should rouse every patriotic Canadian to take concrete action to help alleviate conditions that are frankly unconscionable for any human being, let alone those resident in a supposedly advanced and enlightened Western country.

“Canadians must understand the impact on us of the loss of our languages, our hardships in trying to rebuild our nations’ traditional governance, cultures, land, and resources,” writes Ellen Gabriel. “Fear, greed, and a heartless disregard for the family units of Indigenous peoples have brought us to the point where I don’t think our ancestors would recognize who we are today or the land they so lovingly used. This is what Canadians must come to understand – not just with their heads, but also with their hearts.”

While we valourize Canada and its many achievements – in culture, science, sport – and its history of sacrifice on the battlefields of Vimy, Dieppe, Passchendaele, and elsewhere, we might also take the opportunity to recommit to a true reconciliation with the people who have occupied this land for much longer than this nation has been an officially sanctioned confederation. Surviving Canada is a good place to start in this endeavour.

For many non-Indigenous readers, this collection will not be comfortable reading. It will, in the dictionary sense of the word, unsettle them. This is a good thing. Literature should prod us out of complacency, challenge our assumptions and expectations. This Canada Day, let’s celebrate by allowing ourselves to be unsettled.

Canada’s unsettling sesquicentennial

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