I went to Ottawa for Canada day. It’s my hometown so I knew what to expect. Canada Day is the most fun you can have in Ottawa.
I definitely had an agenda. I was in the midst of researching the history of Canada for an upcoming project, and had read a couple of books about the history of the Indigenous peoples of North America. I knew where I stood. I didn’t even really need to pay attention to the anti-150 campaign. I knew what was up. I knew “Canada” had been continuously inhabited for tens of thousands of years before the Europeans arrived. I knew there were (and still are) hundreds of different ethno-linguistic groups living all over the land. We call them the Indigenous people. Because they were here before us.
I knew that the Indian Act grouped most of them under one umbrella: First Nations. While the Metis, since they had white blood, got a category of their own. As did the Inuit. I understood that the Tlingit from northern British Columbia were quite different to the Miqmac from Nova Scotia, but they’re all called First Nations. And that on our census, you can self-declare any nationality you want, as long as you’re white.
Celebrating 150 years of Canada was a slap in the face of our Indigenous population. It’s a celebration of white supremacy, cultural genocide, land grabbing and racism. It’s a celebration of hundreds of years of broken treaties. Not to mention the residential schools and the reservation system.
I got in late the night before Canada Day. I ran into the fellow renting the basement apartment at my Mums house. Let’s call him Mike. Mike’s from the east coast, works at a bike store. He’s kind and well-intentioned, nailing most of the stereotypes we hold for ourselves as settler Canadians.
He told me a story about running into an Indigenous man, who angrily swore at him. Many settler Canadians seem to have similar stories. Drunk and angry indigenous men. A likely stereotype. And proof of our racist settler ideology.
I suggested that indigenous man likely had every right to be angry.
Mike went on, “I know he does. I know we have a problem to fix, but like, I didn’t personally do anything to them. A lot of this happened 200 years ago.”
(I know that the last residential school closed in 1996, so this isn’t actually an old problem, but telling people off doesn’t really help)
So I replied, “Yeah, so why don’t we step up and do something about it, 200 years is a long time to keep screwing up at something.”
“Yeah, that’s a good point.”
“We can do a better job than our parents and grandparents. We can do something about this. Why not?”
“Yeah. So what do we do?”
“We listen to them. And we do what’s asked of us. We have plenty of land and resources to share. We’re lucky that way, living in Canada.”
My father first came to Canada in the early 1960s. He left Kenya as a teenager. He took a boat across the Atlantic. And a train from Quebec City. All the way to Saskatoon. He still tells me the story about the time he met Tommy Douglas.
He left Canada after his degree. He met a woman, fell in love and started a family. They settled down in Uganda.
Fate brought him back to Canada in the late 1980s. Canada welcomed him back and gave him a job teaching at Carleton. Where he met a delightful young masters student. My mother.
I wanted to spend Canada Day, on the 150th, with my father. I wanted to retrace the steps of my childhood. Wander from my mother’s house to the market, pop over to Major’s Hill Park, grab a chicken sandwich, then slowly meander back. Watching people, and occasionally discussing politics and history and economics and colonialism. My father was a professor of political science, and he was born in a British Colony. He has some fascinating perspectives.
Canada Day is always a little different in Ottawa. The city shuts down, the streets are blocked off, and every park in the downtown core becomes a little fair ground with events and stages and buskers and families and food. Everyone wears red and white. And most people in the 15-40 demographic are drinking. Heavily.
I don’t think we were quite prepared for the deluge of humanity that was the 150th. Apparently the City of Ottawa was expecting half a million tourists. Ottawa’s a sleepy valley town. We get our fair share of tourists sure, but this was something else.
When I was growing up, you could just walk up to Parliament hill. It’s where you’d watch the musical ride. Mounties on horseback, charging back and forth with trumpets. Whenever we had family visiting from the States we’d take them to that.
And now I feel like one of those people reminiscing about the days when you could visit the cockpit in an airplane.
Apparently you needed a special pass to get to parliament hill and you had to go through a security checkpoint. Each access point to parliament hill was blocked off, with armed guards. It was a little surreal. Welcome to Canada?
I heard some people waited in line for 8 hours.
My dad made a quick joke about queuing. And how it’s perhaps one of the best legacies of the British Empire. Well, that and the bureaucracy.
As we tried to extricate ourselves from the throng of humanity near the war memorial we happened upon a wonderful scene. On the other side of yet another barricade were some folks with drums and green and white onesie-esque get-ups. My dad immediately recognized their flag – Burundi. They started playing rhythmically and maniacally. The crowd paused. Phones came out. Then my dad had a thought:
“Look Rashidi, look at all the faces. Look at these people, these families. You have people from every corner of the globe, here, together, all wearing red and white and celebrating being Canadian together.”
There was a tear in his eye.
This was a country that welcomed him and accepted him almost 60 years ago. And welcomed him back 30 years ago, and bore him two children. This is a beautiful and magical country. Plenty of sermons have been written about our multicultural ethic. You know the shtick: we’re a patchwork quilt here in Canada, we have many cultural identities. Everyone’s Canadian – and something else. My father is Canadian and Kenyan. We all share our nebulous Canadian identity – this veritable technicolour dreamcoat of international identities.
Unless you’re Indigenous. Then you get an identity card.
So, what Canada are we?
By Rashid Mohiddin
Please note that opinions expressed are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views and values of The Blank Page.