Why I'm Celebrating Canada150

Parliament in Ottawa, ON; November 2012

Happy Canada Day.

Today marks 150 years since Confederation in Canada, which occurred on July 1, 1867 as a result of a British North America Act assented to by none other than Queen Victoria, Empress of India herself, orchestrated by various white guys. An anniversary of this kind is, of course, an arbitrary thing to celebrate, and it's a lot more controversial than it was last time Canada had a major birthday, but today I find myself in Ottawa, the country's capital city, a place where I've wanted to spend Canada Day for many years.

I've only been outside of Canada once on July 1st, while I was taking a bus tour of Europe after I finished my bachelor's degree (I know, try to be a bit more cliché). When I told the various Australians and Americans I was touring with that it was Canada Day, the information was met with what can only be described as thunderous indifference. This had a lot to do with the fact that the anniversary of a country that isn't your own is not particularly interesting when you are driving through the Swiss Alps. But that tour and that indifference were two of the many experiences that have shaped my understanding of what it is to be Canadian and what being Canadian means out in the world. I learned the comfort of hearing a Canadian accent in a strange country (we really do pronounce "about" in a unique way). I learned that the only thing more obnoxious than an American traveller is a Canadian traveller being vocal and insistent about how not American they are. I realized how much of my own country I hadn't bothered to get to know, when people asked me about things like Niagara Falls (still haven't been there!).

I have been to Vancouver, however,
seen from the Granville Bridge; September 2016

Some of my illusions about Canada had already been stripped away by Will Ferguson's 1997 book Why I Hate Canadians, which I read in high school, and introduced me to a skeptical view of patriotism that I would've taken a lot longer to arrive at on my own.

And yet I'm in Ottawa for Canada150, an event that many people I respect and like have no time for. It should be Canada15000, they say. It's expensive and treacly. Canada has all these problems. Canada is the worst. Besides that last hyperbole, these critiques are all valid to the point that I feel like I have to defend my decision to participate in any Canada Day celebration at all. I do not dispute anyone else's reasons for opposing Canada150. At this point I will also make the disclaimer that I am a white Canadian whose immigrant origins are several generations behind me and that's where my opinion is coming from. But it's also coming from these other places that I'm about to write about.

My most basic point is that almost every country in the world has a national day, so it's not like Canada Day is anything special or unusually self-congratulatory. It's trivial to turn this point on its head, however: lots of those other national days celebrate the end of colonial rule or slavery or similar. Canada Day is explicitly not that.

Montreal Olympic Stadium,
seen from the Botanical Garden; July 2011
Further to that, yes of course, 150 years of Canada is an arbitrary anniversary to celebrate. There are a few ways of looking at this. If we're going to have a national day, we have to pick some point to start the count. The origin of human settlement in North America is obscured by the mists of time to the point that we can't really start there. A person could compile a long list of various European visitations and settlements, but there are obvious problems with that. Quebec City celebrated 400 years since its founding a little less than ten years ago, so even extant European settlements in Canada exceed the 150 years at hand. Confederation makes some sense because it marks the beginning of the continuous existence of a place called Canada in a way similar to the way that name is used today. My own province, Saskatchewan, wasn't officially "a thing" until 1905, although of course the land was here and full of various First Nations, Métis, and immigrant people for many years before that. Canada has only existed in its present form since Nunavut separated from the North West Territories on April 1, 1999. By that metric, Canada has only just reached voting age, not its sesquicentennial.

Land of Living Skies, Saskatchewan; July 2013

This haphazard evolution sort of reflects my own ancestry. Like many third-or-more generation Canadians, my ancestors have varied origins and came to Canada at different times. I'm largely French-Canadian to the point that three out of my four grandparents spoke French as their first language. One branch of the family has been in the country for so long that there are theories that the Jeanne who married Jean in Québec several centuries ago could have been a fille du roi. Most of the other branches of my family tree were more recent immigrants to the Canadian prairies, including some who came north from the United States.

Buffalo Narrows, SK; July 2016

Clouds over Churchill Lake, Buffalo Narrows, SK;
July 2016
I spent last summer working as a census enumerator. On Canada Day I was in Buffalo Narrows, a northern community in Saskatchewan, knocking on people's doors while they were spending the holiday with friends and family, or at the local Canada Day festivities. I wasn't sure how I'd be received, as a federal government employee asking people intensely personal questions in a part of the country where a much of the population has little reason to like or trust the Canadian government. But almost without exception, the people in Buffalo Narrows were friendly and welcoming. The community itself couldn't be located in a more beautiful location, on the narrow strip of land between two huge lakes. There are a lot of under-appreciated places in Canada, and northern Saskatchewan is one of them.

Besides my time in Buffalo Narrows, I mostly enumerated my own neighbourhood. Again, besides a few outliers, people were so friendly and kind to me. I got to meet hundreds of people in my area from all different walks of life, with different ancestry, origins, languages, and jobs. They invited me into their homes and told me their stories. I came away feeling that Canada really is a tapestry, a place that people not only come from, but choose to come to.

At the same time, I understand that Canada is a place where some people (i.e. too many) live in poverty, lack basic services, and face racism. I had rose-coloured glasses regarding Canadian attitudes to newcomers a few years ago, prior to working with one particular construction crew that resolutely ground everything down under their heels until all that was left was a rose-coloured shard stuck in my eye. There is a long litany of ways in which Canada struggles and fails. The support, or lack thereof, that we give our veterans. The struggle to treat mental health and addictions, in the face of teen suicides and opioid deaths. The "pitiful" action on climate change. Knowing our own history, both good and bad.

But if we needed things to be perfect in order to celebrate them, we would never celebrate anything at all. If there is a country without skeletons in its closet, it's probably because they haven't had a chance to shove them in there yet. Here, we are in the process of dragging our skeletons out onto the front step for the world, and for us, to see, and I think that's why Canada150 is so painful. Change is hard, and it hurts. We are, too slowly, but surely, responding to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's calls to action. I wish I could write a list here of various official Canadian policies and positions that I am proud of but the fact is that I am frequently disappointed. My patriotism may be skeptical, but it is still primarily emotional, based on the fact that I was born in Canada and it's the only country I've ever lived in.

Peggy's Cove, Nova Scotia; February 2016
I've been lucky enough to visit two out of three of Canada's coasts, and six out of ten provinces. Someday I hope to make it to the territories and the other four provinces. There is a certain cognitive dissonance associated with travelling across an enormous landmass and then going ahead and using the same currency, knowing that the people you are speaking to are fellow Canadians even though their experience of the country is almost entirely different from your own. To me, Canada is spectacular skies, old abandoned farmhouses, potash mines, spindly evergreen trees, and snowmobiling down trails between bare white poplars. You will find that definition significantly altered if you ask someone from the Fraser Valley, Toronto, or the Gaspésie. Canada is where I can find all of the people and places that mean the most to me.

My favourite Canada: rural Saskatchewan; June 2010
All that said, I honestly wonder if Canada or any other country will survive the 21st century. Not necessarily because of catastrophic climate change or political unrest, but also because the suburbs of southern Ontario may have engulfed the entire landmass by the time the next 150 years have passed. So let's enjoy it while it lasts.

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