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Members of Okanagan-Syilx Nation are unsettling Canada 150. It's time for Canadians to listen.

Dixon Terbasket at the first billboard raising on IR #2 (Lower Similkameen Indian Band) Photo credit: Zeus Helios

The point is to make you uncomfortable.

If you drive east through the sage-spotted Similkameen Valley, between Keremeos and Osoyoos, you'll be confronted with a billboard that reminds travellers of the difficult realities of colonization. A large illustration depicts industry, residential schooling, resource extraction, ecological distress, and at the bottom, an Okanagan family agitated by flames; their bodies representing the land, their hair, the water. In the top-right corner of the billboard, set below a stylized medicine wheel, it reads: "Rethink 150."

This billboard is the first of two in the Okanagan Valley and is part of a larger Okanagan-Syilx-led collaborative awareness project called Rethink 150: Indigenous Truth.

A few weeks ago, I had a chance to chat with Dixon Terbasket, a friend and founding member of the Rethink 150 collective. In our conversation, he posed the important rhetorical question: "Settlers have no idea of our history, so how are they going to learn about it?" For members of Rethink 150, the performance of hyper-nationalism surrounding Canada's 150th anniversary highlights more than a need for education. Unsettling people this year is about bringing awareness to the work that Canada 150 does to actively erase and occlude current and historical injustices. For the Rethink 150 collective, their interventions are meant to be productive, by turning discomfort into resolve, rather than resentment. These challenging conversations provide a stepping-off point to build more respectful relationships across Turtle Island and create a stronger foundation to move forward together.

As we approach the sesquicentennial, it is nearly impossible to avoid being affronted by the promises of happiness that Canada 150 presents. Pop cans, T-shirts, online ads are common sites used to promote and publicize a specific point of view about this nation, and ultimately solidify a narrow agenda of what Canada should become. The truth is that our current political order relies upon these carefully crafted visions of Canada to promote support for a nation that is based on tenuous claims to sovereignty and national jurisdiction. This restless performance by the national government is even confirmed in Section 35(1) of the Canadian Constitution, which recognizes and affirms the treaty rights of Indigenous Peoples in Canada.

These ideals put forward by Canada 150 make it easier to swallow some difficult realities: a nation that struggles with flagrant intolerance, eagerly privileges profits over people, and habitually disavows its most vulnerable.

The Canada 150 project does little to lessen these realities. In fact, it does the opposite.

Creating and sustaining this constructed vision of Canada is an expensive and labourious process. In the case of Canada 150, the price tag exceeds $500 million. And it is funded by the public.

Consider the vision put forth in the CBC series, "Canada: The Story of US," an initiative so Anglocentric in its bent that it compresses 14,000 years of Indigenous history and 150 years of New France into a single episode. And for the more than six million Canadians who are more comfortable engaging in languages other than English? Sorry. The series has been produced in just one.

This is not to say that the vision of Canada 150 has ignored Indigenous people wholesale. There have been some flashes of recognition for Indigenous people throughout, such as Indigenous music performances and storytelling at  celebrations. But as Dene scholar Glen Coulthard demonstrates in his award-winning book Red Skin, White Masks, in Canada too often simple acts of recognition are employed as a measure to justify inaction. Inequality and social constraint still exist through the government's relatively superficial efforts to reconcile. For proof of this, take a second to consider the governing bodies implicated in the mercury contamination at Grassy Narrows First Nation. Or how long it took, and what it took, for the Canadian government to commit to an official inquiry for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

For the late Secwepemc activist, writer, and visionary, Arthur Manuel, the ongoing violence and colonial constraint placed on Indigenous people in Canada is most visible in the fact that Indigenous populations are left with a reserve system that encompasses just 0.2 per cent of traditional Indigenous territories. The Crown controls 99.8 per cent. 

Many believe that Canada 150 is about orienting ourselves to the future: "Sure, we have had an unfortunate past... But we have worked hard to reconcile, and it's time to move on." If you find yourself in this "get over it and move on" camp, it's worth remembering that the last residential school -- Saskatchewan's infamous Gordon Residential School -- only closed its doors in 1996. Or the recent, and now thoroughly documented, shameful racially targeted practice of "starlight tours" carried out by the Saskatoon RCMP.  Legacies of colonialism are not in the past. Not even close.

As plans ramp up for what is anticipated to be possibly Canada's largest publicly funded party, the work of the Syilx-led Rethink 150 collective and a chorus of other grassroots resistance efforts remind us, as Terbasket states, that it's "not a big happy party for the Indigenous people." Neither is it for any of us who reject the tired promises that Canada 150 offers.

It's not that we cannot be thankful this Canada Day. There are many things to be grateful for. Rather, it is incumbent upon us as settlers to understand what Canada 150 does in relation to the history of this country, the voices and struggles it erases, and the ideological return anticipated from the Canadian government's decadent investment.

The work of the Rethink 150 collective urges us to not simply accept the promises that 150 offers. Questioning 150 will lead to a place where we are building a stronger, inclusive and democratic Canada. My sincere thanks to the work of all those who have amplified this meaningful dialogue. This is a discussion that offers the real possibility for stronger sustained relationships across Turtle Island and beyond.

Now that is something worth celebrating.

Neil Nunn is a first generation Canadian committed to being a respectful guest on unceded Indigenous territory. Neil is a PhD Candidate in Geography and Planning and a Lupina Senior Doctoral Fellow at the School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. His research examines the relationship between mine-waste and structures of colonialism in B.C. Twitter: @neil_nunn

Photo credit: Zeus Helios

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