Reflections on a not so happy Canada Day


Canada. According to a federal government website, the name likely comes from the Huron-Iroquois word “kanata,” meaning “village” or “settlement.” We like to think of Canada as a country that’s a mosaic – where everyone’s language, culture, skin colour, ethnicity, is celebrated and allowed to co-exist. Integration, not assimilation. Travelling outside North America, that maple leaf on your collar, or a flag pinned to your backpack, used to guarantee you a friendly welcome. Canada – the peacekeeping nation, the fair nation, the country that cares …

It was a nice feeling. But thanks to the internet age and the resulting “global village,” Canada’s record of mistreatment of indigenous peoples, including the abuses perpetrated in the residential school system, is now known worldwide. For those who bother to think or study a bit deeper, there is the shocking realization that these so-called “historical” incidents continue to have devastating effects today not just on the descendants of survivors but for all indigenous/first nations people.

For example, although the tragic effects of the heat wave in BC and its portents for the climate crisis are covered thoroughly, a headline in today’s Guardian asks “This Canada Day, let’s remember this country was built on genocide.”

I’m proud of my Canadian roots — on the Quebec French side, they go back to 1685 and the Ottawa Valley Irish part of the family dates from 1849. More than most, though, I ought to have understood that my Canadian roots were really just “settler” roots. And that my genealogical research of a few hundred years was superficial compared to the thousands of years that indigenous people have lived in this land.

I used to be a smug Canadian. As my father was a career civil servant in Indian Affairs, we lived on a reserve when I was born. I could use words like “reserves” and “bands” and “treaties” and “land claims” with ease and when I lived in the United Kingdom, most Brits thought I knew what I was talking about.

In the seventies when I worked with a lawyer who specialized in indigenous rights law, I was happy to hear that the elders on the reserve where we had lived for fifteen years (Akwesasne) remembered my father as “one of the good guys.” And Dad’s final project before retiring in Barry’s Bay in 1969 was to travel coast to coast to develop proposals so that indigenous peoples would achieve self-government. We were proud of his work then, and proud of his recommendations when a few of them were eventually adopted by Ottawa more than thirty years later.

But now my settler smugness has to end. It’s not good enough anymore to remain ignorant. The past few weeks have been a time of conscience for me as a Canadian. What do I really know about indigenous/first nations peoples’ ways and beliefs? Or about the way our settler government has mistreated the people whose lands we live on? And more worryingly, what can I do about it? Have I bothered to learn and to share that knowledge with others?

If I’m struggling with this, just imagine how it must have been for my Dad. He was a deeply devout Catholic, respectful of the clergy and the church, someone who was honoured by the Knights of Columbus here in Barry’s Bay for his seventy-five years’ active membership. During all his years of civil service work visiting reserves across Canada, what did he hear? What did he suspect – or know? All I can remember him saying about residential schools was that it wasn’t good to split up families, but I do recall he was shocked when stories of abuse began to appear in the media in the late sixties.

The technology didn’t exist back then to discover mass unmarked graves of children, but it does now. And with improvements in technology comes the responsibility for all of us to improve our attitudes. No more smugness. Instead it’s time to reach out. It’s time to ask, to learn, to reflect, and then to change our ways and truly respect all who inhabit this land we call home, whether we refer to it as “Canada” or “Turtle Island.”  

Above map: Beadwork by Amanda Laliberte, Ashley Copage, Ashley McKenzie-Dion, Didi Grandjambe, Jennelle Doyle, Joelle Charlie, Kyla Woodward, Lenore Augustine, Marissa Magneson, Mellz Compton, Monique Jolly, and Rena Laboucan. Graphical mock-up by Justin Romero. (Kooteen Creations, Facebook) Photo

Editor’s Note: The author’s father, T. Leo Bonnah, worked for Indian Affairs from 1939 to 1969, spending the first fifteen years as agent on the St. Regis reserve, now known as the Mohawk Nation of Akwesasne.

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