My favourite Canada Day memory has nothing to do with Canada Day. I’m playing the latest Zelda game in the living room on our comfy family couch. My father and little sister are curled up on either side of me, offering helpful commentary like, “You suck.” My mother wanders in to remind us that we’re missing the fireworks, at which point we reassure her that we we’d rather beat this dungeon. We go to bed tired and happy, discussing plot points over the gunshot-like sounds of errant teenagers setting off yet more fireworks of their own.
I was born in Canada, but at the time no one in my family had lived the majority of their life here. It was typical of us to let Canada Day pass without much fuss. The holiday has always struck me as more of an excuse to celebrate than a genuine patriotic commemoration, but I was never fully comfortable with throwing myself into the festivities. I’m inherently wary of patriotism; it makes it far too simple to form an us-versus-them mentality that’s easily exploited, and it encourages people to downplay dissent to portray a harmonious whole. But there’s extra pressure when you’re a racial minority to show you belong here by celebrating. Criticizing Canadian policies is difficult when there’s always someone ready to suggest that you should go back to where you came from.
So I kept quiet about my ambivalence toward Canada 150 when it was first announced. There are some genuinely neat initiatives happening, like the Rick Hansen Foundation’s Access4All program to address accessibility barriers, but most of the buzz around the event has been of the cynical commercial variety. Tourism opportunities abound, with companies like Hudson Bay producing t-shirts and commemorative foam canoes hats. The government’s asking us to put aside our differences to celebrate Confederation, and preferably spend a lot of money while doing it. But the Canada that was born in 1867 wasn’t a welcoming place for all of us.
If you’re Asian, this country has recognized you as a citizen—that is, a person who has the right to vote in federal elections—since 1947 (1949 if you’re Japanese). That’s 70 years of living in a country that acknowledges you’re a part of it, not 150. Canada Day is known to some as “Humiliation Day“, the anniversary of a law that banned all Chinese immigration for 23 years. For Aboriginal people, their right to vote wasn’t granted until 1960, which means merely 57 years of “being Canadian.” Unless, of course, you count in the opposite direction, to see how long they’ve been living on the lands now called Canada, in which case it’s around 15,000. 150 years doesn’t even begin to cover it.
Plenty of people have criticized the government’s timeline. The trending hashtag #Resistance150 offers a glimpse at an angry populace that’s more interested in politics than partying. On Wednesday, First Nations activists set up a teepee on Parliament Hill, where speakers had already been placed for the Canada 150 event. The resulting media kerfuffle prompted some long overdue discussions on the government’s past transgressions against Aboriginal peoples. Some pointed to the large amount of spending that has gone into Canada 150, while Native communities continue to lack access to even basic necessities. The critical discourse circulating resembles the kind that often arises at Thanksgiving, another holiday that largely ignores colonial history. The teepee activists, for their part, insisted that it was not an act of protest but rather a ceremony that they have the right to perform on their own land.
There is no cut-off point after which traumatic history can suddenly be ignored. Come Canada 150, 200 or more, our country’s sordid past of discrimination and violence is never going to fade. None of us should have to overlook Canada’s past transgressions this Saturday, regardless of whether we choose to join in the merrymaking. Enjoying the event certainly doesn’t make you a bad person, but neither is it wrong for people to use the opportunity to question what we’re celebrating. We’re a diverse country, after all. Canada isn’t going to vanish if we acknowledge that people’s experiences of being here are diverse, too. So go to a picnic, watch the fireworks, attend a protest or stay in bed. Whether we celebrate Canada 150 or spurn it, this country belongs to all of us just the same.