If you live in Canada, you may have heard that our nation is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. Actually, let me rephrase that: if you live in Canada, you’d be hard-pressed to not know that we are celebrating our 150th anniversary. If I had a Royal Canadian Mint special-edition glow-in-the-dark coin every time I heard, saw or watched an advertisement for Canada’s upcoming birthday (one literally just played on Spotify as I typed that), I would be rolling in money.
This week, the Algoma University Students’ Union voted unanimously to not sanction or endorse events associated with Canada 150. Why? The university was once the site of a residential school, and, according to the Toronto Star, the student union president said that the decision was meant as an act of solidarity with Indigenous students at the school.
As the introduction of the Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada states: “For over a century, the central goals of Canada’s Aboriginal policy were to eliminate Aboriginal governments; ignore Aboriginal rights; terminate the Treaties; and, through a process of assimilation, cause Aboriginal peoples to cease to exist as distinct legal, social, cultural, religious and racial entities in Canada.”
For some, Canada 150 is a celebration of a nation with an established reputation as a peacekeeper, a country with open arms for refugees and a country that fought in two world wars to support freedom. For others, Canada 150 is a celebration synonymous with a legacy of colonialism, genocide, racism and injustice.
Canada projects itself as a “global human rights beacon,” Christie McLeod writes in an article for Maclean’s. Yet within our own country, we have often failed to recognize and uphold the same rights we purport to champion on the global stage. McLeod gives the example of Canada introducing the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, which would see states have an obligation to intervene when other states fail to protect their own citizens from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. This doctrine asking states to take action against genocide was announced in 2001—just five years after Canada’s last residential school, an example of government-funded cultural genocide, closed.
For those of us not negatively impacted by Canada’s colonial history, it’s dismally simple to see our country as a glorious land of justice, equality and human rights. But we should reflect on the fact that some 6,000 children died at Canadian residential schools, and that thousands more have had to live with the consequences of being stripped of their culture, community and dignity. We should also remember the current suicide crises in Indigenous communities and the “third world” conditions of water advisories on reserves. There are issues which all of us—Indigenous, and non-Indigenous—can play a part in working to solve.
There are, of course, many good things to say about Canada; so as we consider what we are really celebrating as Canada turns 150, we should remember that there are actions we can all take to make Canada an even better for everyone who calls it home.