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Why is Canada’s 150th birthday controversial?

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CANADA celebrates its 150th birthday on July 1st. An estimated 500,000 people will gather on the lawns of the neo-Gothic parliament buildings in Ottawa on Saturday to hum along with the folksinger Gordon Lightfoot (yes, he’s still alive) and to ooh and aah at the fireworks display, which its sponsor promises will be the largest Canada Day show. Canada is well regarded in much of the world, and its citizens feel they have earned the party. So why is the anniversary of Canada’s founding controversial?

There is much to celebrate. Canada remains a separate country despite being twice invaded by Americans intent on occupying the entire northern part of the continent. It has weathered the existential crisis of Quebec separatism, now in deep freeze according to Chantal Hébert, a Quebec pundit. While much of the Western world is gloomily turning inward, Canada trumpets the merits of globalisation, multiculturalism and refugee acceptance. The lead cheerleader is Justin Trudeau, the photogenic prime minister, who showed his diversity chops last week by marching in the Toronto Pride parade while wearing socks that said Eid Mubarak, to mark the Muslim festival at the end of Ramadan. Among Americans who recognise his name, Mr Trudeau is more popular than Donald Trump.

Yet for the 1.4m First Nation, Inuit and Métis, the land’s original inhabitants, there is nothing to celebrate. “Canada 150 is so insulting,” says Pam Palmater, a Mi’kmaw lawyer and university professor. “We’ve been here for tens of thousands of years.” Their grievances go well beyond a dispute over dates. After the Dominion of Canada was formed in 1867 the new government continued colonial policies that seized their land and put them on reserves. Worse, the government tried to eradicate their culture and language by taking indigenous children from their homes and putting them in “residential schools”. First Nations could not hire a lawyer to defend their land claims until 1951. Those on reserves (some gave up their status and moved to cities) were not allowed to vote until 1960.

 

Stephen Harper, the former Conservative prime minister, apologised in 2008 for residential schools, the last of which closed in 1996. The Liberal government has vowed to repair the tattered relationship. But progress is uneven. The same week that Mr Trudeau said Canada’s relationship with indigenous peoples was the most important one it had, his government delayed giving indigenous children the same access to government services as non-indigenous children by going back to court to ask for clarification. Murray Sinclair, an Ojibway and the former head of a national commission that looked into residential schools, says until the government comes up with a clear plan on how to achieve true reconciliation its statements risk becoming platitudes. Mr Trudeau says it’s going to take “many, many generations” to undo hundreds of years of harm. At that rate indigenous people will probably not be among the revellers when Canada turns 200 in 2067.

TheEconomist


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