I don’t celebrate Canada Day, never have. Political protests that talk about “taking back Canada” make me uncomfortable. “We,” the people who live here, have never had Canada. Even if some people’s romantic idea of what Canada was in some distant past when Tommy Douglas was standing for medicare or when Pierre Elliot Trudeau was unwilling to see homosexuality be illegal, I still wouldn’t celebrate Canada. July 1 was the day that Canada was formed. In essence it was based on a deal between Upper and Lower Canada, the British colony and the French one. It was an unequal deal that we have been paying for ever since but more importantly both were based on the annihilation of most and marginalization of the rest of First Nations.
When I ask groups who promote this romantic view of a country founded in colonialism why they do it, they usually answer that more people relate to it. I get that standing up for something you are losing is more powerful than fighting for something that never existed before. That’s why we won the abortion fight. We set up a clinic and then asked people to defend it against legal and political assault. But isn’t our job as activists to educate people not to feed into the mythology that keeps us all divided.
The Canadian Left has suffered from nationalism for as long as I’ve been an activist. I suppose it has to do with living next door to the United States. Up until recently we have legitimately been able to claim it is better here than there. Now our government has made us an international pariah worse, at least on environmental issues, than the U.S. After all, we let draft dodgers from the Vietnam War and even deserters come here. We let Chileans fleeing Pinochet’s vicious coup come here. We made friends with Cuba and stayed out of the war in Vietnam and the war against Iraq. We adopted same sex marriage before almost every other country. We have single payer public health care. We fought for and won the best legal equality for women at least on paper, including abortion rights. And probably best of all, we have a magnificently multicultural country that despite continuing racism at almost every level, people are proud of. Almost all of these things came with a struggle when we had governments that responded to political pressure.
We can be proud of these accomplishments but that’s not the same as being proud of this country. In the 1970s nationalism was a significant current on the Left. The Waffle, the youthful left wing of the NDP, was ahead of its time politically on many issues like women’s rights, Indigenous rights, self-determination for Quebec and environmental issues but it was nationalist. It saw the central economic problem for Canada as our economy being based on “branch plants” to U.S. industry.
As a young woman who had travelled around the world in 1970 and in particular overland from Turkey to India, I could never accept this Canadian nationalism. On occasion, although they deny it now, some of those nationalists would compare Canada to a third-world country. This I knew to be false. Canada was just a milder version of the imperialist United States — is how I saw it.
Later the Council of Canadians formed as a nationalist group who helped to lead the fight against Free Trade. This was a critical battle but here too I couldn’t accept the argument of independence from the U.S. For me it was the arguments about how Free Trade would restructure the economy, export jobs and undermine social programs that made sense. When Quebec got involved in a coalition against Free Trade called the “Pro-Canada Network,” we had to change the name to Action Canada Network. To their credit the CoC became more and more internationalist as the free trade fight spread internationally through the fight against the FTAA and then more generally the international fight against neo-liberalism.
Yet Canadian nationalism still seems to have an echo in the fight against Stephen Harper under the rubric of taking back Canada from the Harperite plunderers.
I believe it is in part Canadian nationalism that has prevented most social movements and the political Left in Canada from prioritizing the struggle of Indigenous people. Despite generations of struggle, from George Manuel’s leadership of the constitutional battles in the 1970’s to Oka in the 1990s to a series of local and regional struggles. I don’t think that most of the Left in Canada, including myself, has placed a sufficient priority on actively supporting Indigenous struggles and restoring the nation to nation relationships that was agreed to by the Crown prior to the formation of Canada that is celebrated today.
On this Canada Day, Idle No More has joined with Defenders of the Land to declare Sovereignty Summer. It is a chance for all of us, across the country to support our Indigenous brothers and sisters in the struggle for their rights. They have generously defined their struggle in an inclusive way. As Pam Palmateer has said, “we are your best chance, to protect this land for your children and grandchildren.” And that is true. But it is also true that if we want to transform society to be more just and more equal, we have to change the unjust foundation of colonialism on which this country stands.
That’s why I don’t celebrate Canada Day.
Between June 21 and July 1 — National Aboriginal Day to Canada Day — rabble.ca has been featuring a series of articles examining and critiquing the uses of Canadian identity, the resurgence of Indigenous movements for justice, and the ways in which activists and thinkers across these lands are addressing these fundamental questions. You can read all the reflections on Canadian identity and Indigenous struggles on this special issue page.