This Saturday marks 150 years since the Confederation of Upper and Lower Canada (then known as the province of Canada) along with the Maritime provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick under the British North America Act into the new Dominion of Canada—complete with four provinces, Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Since then, this nation has grown from the original four provinces to 10 (and three territories).
In its formation and growth Canada has certainly seen its share of growing pains. Replete with cleavages that seemed destined to tear it apart right from its very inception, including the long-standing English-French divide, invasions from the south, both from our exuberant and boisterous republican neighbour and wild-eyed expatriate Irish patriots, the Fenians, who, in the wake of the American Civil War, wished to use our nation as a bargaining chip to free Ireland from what they saw as the oppression of the a British interloper—the British for their part were convinced they were bringing the height of civilization and Protestantism to the benighted people of the Emerald Isle languishing under the repressive hand of the Catholic Church. We still struggle with the ripples from those events onto this very day.
To many of our First Nation allies, the original inhabitants of the land upon whose territories Canada stands and thanks to whose military might we remained under the Union Jack, the 150 years since Confederation have not been anything to celebrate.
In a series of questionable “treaties” in which the First Nations were steadily and increasingly stripped of their lands to make way for waves of newcomers, and even those one-sided treaties were not honoured before the ink had even dried. Instead, a policy of cultural genocide was instituted by the founders of the nation and their minions, where residential schools under the guise of education and trades training sought to strip away their “Indian-ness” and replace it with something more amenable to being good servants of the Empire—with the end goal of their being totally absorbed into the mainstream culture. It was for their own good, the Fathers of Confederation told themselves. It was a noble cause. The indigenous victims of this cultural (and in some instances blatant) genocide have every right to disagree. But the residential system is now history, and while we may still be dealing with its aftermath, we may celebrate its demise and lay to rest the bigoted attitudes upon which it was founded.
The accumulated debt of the policies toward our indigenous hosts upon this land is so huge that the federal government (sorry, but of any political stripe) spends much of its time obfuscating and delaying settlements as a tactic of first resort—the bill is simply that large. But step by step it is being addressed, not fast enough, but being addressed nonetheless.
But despite our many failings and shortcomings, there is a tremendous amount that we as Canadians have to celebrate on July 1, both as a nation and a province. We are a rich and free nation, a vibrant swirling hodgepodge of cultures and languages in a democracy where people are largely free to celebrate their own traditions and to protest those things they do not agree with. We may express our dissatisfaction in the press, in voting a government that displeases us into the hinterlands, even to take to the streets waving placards decrying injustice (including those that still reign on reserves and in our urban centres for minorities of colour, religion and disposition).
We have political leaders who are making inroads in those historical injustices, albeit not nearly fast enough; we have a social safety net system that largely protects the most vulnerable among us; and we are blessed with a national health system which each citizen has the right to access, not simply the rich or privileged few. We have a generally tolerant and welcoming society in which most of us are secure enough to be able to celebrate each others differences. Few across this globe can boast the same.
Canada is well and truly blessed. Not perfect, we still have many hills to climb, but along that long road we have made incredible accomplishments. July 1, Canada Day, is a day to recognize not how far we have to go, but to celebrate how high we have already climbed these 150 years.