Canada 150 sparks celebrations and protests

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CANADA – July 1, 2017 marked a significant anniversary for the country. This date, known as the statutory holiday of “Canada Day” was special this year. as it has been 150 years since the first four provinces came together to create Canada in 1867.

Other provinces and territories followed the initial four, and by 1949, the country looked much like it does today. The most recent change to the map came when the Northwest Territories were divided, and the new territory of Nunavut was created in 1999.

The federal government spared no expense staging Canada 150 celebrations. The budget for these sesquicentennial festivities was reported to be $500 million dollars, which included regional events, merchandise, security, and infrastructure.

Parliament Hill, Ottawa [Wikimedia Commons]

The days of celebration started on June 21 with National Aboriginal Day – a holiday that honours the Inuit, Métis and First Nations peoples. The Summer Solstice date was intentionally chosen to coincide with celebrations that Indigenous groups have historically held at this time of year.

June 24 is Saint Jean Baptiste Day held in honour of Canada’s French culture and language. This day has been declared a national holiday in the province of Quebec, which has the largest population of Francophones in the country.

Then three days later is Multiculturalism Day. This official holiday was designated in 2002 in order to celebrate diversity and commitment to democracy, equality and mutual respect and to appreciate the contributions of the various multicultural groups and communities to Canadian society.

The Canada 150 celebrations finally culminated in the July 1 Canada Day extravaganza with cities and communities from coast to coast throwing concerts, parties, parades, fireworks and cultural events.

For some a great celebration, but for others, it was an important opportunity to protest.

In honour of the late Arthur Manuel, an Indigenous leader, activist and author, the group Idle No More called for a National Day of Action on July 1. The purpose was to celebrate Indigenous rights to self-determination, the land, territories and resources, and educate all Canadians about the injustices suffered by Indigenous peoples.

The Bawaating Water Protectors, an aboriginal group from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, made their way to Parliament Hill in Ottawa June 28 with the intent to erect a teepee and hold ceremonies. They clashed with police, and nine of the Water Protectors were arrested.

A few hours later they were released without charges, and eventually the group were allowed to set up the teepee on the main lawn, close to the West Block- one of the main buildings on Parliament Hill.

In a statement to the press, organizer Brendon Nahwegezhiche said: “We’re here to make people aware of the genocide that went on, the assimilations that went on. That is a part of the history and that is the truth of Canada, unfortunately.”

For Wiccan Priestess Renee LaFortune, the celebration of Canada 150 was a private communion with the land: “I did not participate in any organized Canada Day events this year because, as a life-long Pagan, and as an Aboriginal person, it is impossible for me to pretend and to ‘celebrate’ 150 years of political and economic, religious and corporate ‘progress’ (oppression and genocide).”

“I considered attending an ‘OH (decolonize) Canada 150’ protest at the Museum in Victoria but decided against it after much contemplation.”

LaFortune lives on Vancouver Island, and the public festivities there happened very close to her home, which creates damage and nuisance:

“I live directly across a country road from a park which hosts concerts, festivals and of course, the annual Canada Day celebration. Regular folk seem to think it’s okay to use my land as overflow parking for their SUVs,” she said.

“They think it’s okay to ‘party’ under my bridge and toss fast food wrappers, cans and coffee cups into the creek or to drive their speedboats up and down the salmon bearing river that surrounds my property. They think it is okay because it is Canada Day and they mean no harm.”

The tension between LaFortune and the Canada Day revelers across her country road mirrors the tension between Indigenous people and settlers in Canada. The protests held in conjunction with Canada 150 were held in hopes of bringing reconciliation to the table and drawing attention to the injustices of the last 150 years.

Robert Rudachyk, a prominent member of Canada’s Heathen community, and active member of the Liberal Party of Canada, reflected on the protests and had some ideas about how Canada could improve.

“I do feel that aboriginal peoples have every reason to protest and as long as their protests are designed to create dialogue to helping with reconciliation, I support them,” he said, “And if we want Canada to be more inclusive, we need to do more to educate people in rural and remote areas as to the benefits and continue to promote multicultural outreach.”

LaFortune is not as optimistic, and feels the country still has a long way to go. “Sadly, in my opinion, Canada is not getting any closer to reconciliation with indigenous peoples. The future is not about partitioning the wealth/economic opportunities/resources. Reconciliation is about true respect, restitution, reclaiming and responsibility – not blame!”

In the aftermath of Canada 150, the country is cleaning up after the public parties, and LaFortune is picking up after the celebration across the road. “The day after Canada Day, I walk the perimeter of my land collecting garbage. I put on rubber fishing boots and use a net to haul trash out of the river.”

“I apologize to the Mother, the trees and to the animals…I weep and heal and weep because they, the ordinary folk, cannot see nor feel the beauty, the life or the abundance. They see a ‘hedge’ and they drive over it. They see an old growth (forest) and talk about how much it’s worth,” LaFortune said.

“They throw rocks at otters and spray bears with mace. They electrocute/poison deer who eat their potted plants and flowers. To the ordinary folk, ‘respect’ is a just a google definition, a politically correct ‘lip service’ statement and not a conscious act.”

It is debatable how close, if at all, Canada is to reaching reconciliation with Indigenous people. Big issues such as land rights, pipelines, The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, the exploitation of natural resources and the legacy of residential schools have yet to reach satisfactory conclusions.

The events of Canada 150 have provided an opportunity for this important, continuing dialogue and public education.