A Canada 150 celebration? Not so fast

A history of settler-colonialism has left many Canadians feeling conflicted about our national celebration

Donna McKinnon - 29 June 2017

In anticipation of Canada's 150th birthday celebration, WOA has been collecting quotes over the last six months from our interviewees about what this birthday means-personally and professionally.

In gathering these quotes, one thing becomes clear: Canadians, or at least those associated with the Faculty of Arts, are deeply self-reflective. This reflexivity is both critical and aspirational, and while many express gratitude for what is good about Canada and Canadians, few seem satisfied with the status quo. What connects each is that as a country, and as individuals, we can do better, and more importantly, we must do better-especially in light of, and in response to, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action.

Matana Skoye ('17 BA, Political Science): It's a tough question, especially knowing Canada's history and knowing colonialism is still ongoing. If reconciliation isn't at the forefront of these celebrations, I think that the celebrations could act as a continuation of this colonial relationship. It needs to be approached in a way that Indigenous peoples and Indigenous knowledge are valued above this birthday. Without acknowledging this history, it seems like a misplaced celebration.

Nat Hurley (Associate Professor, English and Film Studies): It's a moment of reckoning. It means we get another moment of shape-shifting. I have a hard time somehow embracing this as a scene solely of accomplishment and longevity, and now we get to figure out who we want to be for the next 150 years. The last 150 we should not always be worn as a badge of honour. We need to take the things that we've done and accomplished and hold on to those, but not be too smug because there's still a lot of change that needs to take place.

Suman Varghese (Faculty of Arts psychologist): I think it marks a point of both gratitude and contemplation. There are so many amazing things about this country including its incredible people, natural beauty and multicultural spirit. At the same time, there's a sobering history of colonization that we need to recognize and a lot to learn from our history. So, for me, Canada 150 is a chance to explore the past and transform the future.

Daya Madhur ('16, MA, Ethnomusicology): I think this year has been really exciting because, in preparing for Canada 150, it has brought communities together. I have really enjoyed observing and participating in the dialogue around the fabric of our nation and have found myself listening more, not only to our oral narratives but to our environmental sounds as well. Our country's celebration is important in allowing us to reconcile and understand our history, encourage a dialogue on where we would like to go, and listen to our 'heartbeat.'

Tololwa Mollel ('79 MFA, Drama/writer, storyteller): If you think of Tanzania, it was 50 years old in 2011, so 150 is huge. You can look at other places in the world and you don't really have a construct where you have people from, literally, every corner of the world, coming into this space who are not Indigenous to the land. They all came in as immigrants. Some long ago and some just recently, under this tent called Canada. I feel that I'm part of it, part of the story.

Darryl Boessenkool ('87 BA, Economics/Chief Operating Office, Oilers Entertainment Group):

It's a reminder of what we almost take for granted our country. It's a bit of a Canadian thing, that we're not out there promoting how great we are. It pushes us as Canadians to say "we're proud of our country, so let's celebrate." We're actually a pretty good place to live.

Emily Tran ('17 BA, History and Classics): It's encouragement to think about Canadian history in a way that's different from what we've always been taught. You know, just the fur traders. To think about how the themes I'm seeing in the United States are also in Canada. Our history is also one of colonialism and imperialism and subjugation and racism and discrimination. History is not necessarily always good and happy and what we want to remember. We must remember the bad side as well as the good.

Sue Colberg (Associate Professor, Design Studies): Personally, it's not my place to be proud, but I am proud. Canada is such a country that embraces everyone, embraces pioneering spirit, and creates an environment for people to pursue their abilities and dreams. We have a tendency to take that for granted.

You don't realize how fortunate and how privileged you really are until you go somewhere else that isn't, and you realize the contrast in the way you are able to work every day, and the people you are able to have contact with. I'm very privileged to have contact with a group of people who are highly intelligent, highly creative, very devoted and focused on their areas of expertise. As a book designer, I'm charged with putting their content, their output in touch with the world, or the various publics and that's a huge responsibility. Canada is a pretty amazing country. What a concept!

Greg Anderson (Associate Professor, Political Science): I think Canada, for so many people, on so many issues, has come to symbolize this kind of multicultural mosaic that has somehow figured out how to work. You've got this federal system which is inherently conflictual between the provinces and Ottawa, but somehow it holds itself together. I think, over the 150 years, with the advent of health care and socialized medicine, you have a very rich, multi-ethnic society that essentially gets along. Canada has become a bit of a model in terms of the stability of its institutions, whether it's the political, financial, the social, that has become the envy of a lot of other countries, including the United States.

It gets high marks on so many dimensions - standards of living, quality of life, happiness quotients - you name it, Canada is always up there among rich, industrial countries, and I think rightly so. By and large, it's a very well-governed, transparent society that people really look to as one of the most enviable countries to live in. Canadians have a lot to wave the red and white about, and not just hockey!

Malinda Smith (Professor, Political Science): This is 150 and Canada is talking about its relationship to Indigenous peoples, and yet if you look at all the events, if you see any people of colour, it would be astonishing. So I keep thinking, isn't it important, since this is the largest demographic group, the fastest growing group in Canada?

How can we draw on our own experiences to cast light on the experiences of racism? How do we tell stories about a Viola Desmond, or Michaëlle Jean, who was a refugee? Adrienne Clarkson, also. Those are stories we need to tell, also to counteract the negative stories about refugees that are occurring in this contemporary moment.

For Canada's 150th in Canada, an important conversation is how not to reproduce the history of dispossession. You would think a fundamental component of reconciliation conversation would not just be between English and French, or European and Indigenous, but also, what's the relationship between the Chinese and Indigenous, Black people and Indigenous? If we don't include new immigrants in these reconciliation conversations, we could reproduce the history of dispossession, settler-colonialism and stereotyping. I see us repeating some of the same old tropes and same old dynamics in this 150 and the reconciliation conversations, and in my view that's actually a recipe for history repeating itself, rather than transforming those relations in respectful ways.

It's a complicated conversation. I'd like to see a conversation around the next 50 years, where we unsettle settler-colonialism, where we transform disrespectful relations, where we think seriously about what we individually and collectively can do to help nation to nation relations on Indigenous land.

For almost as long as there's been a Canada, there's been a University of Alberta. Over the next year, in honour of Canada's 150th anniversary, we're proudly celebrating the people, achievements and ideas that contributed to the making of a confederation.