Canada: Who are we after 154 years?


As the dark cloud of covid 19 slowly lifts and the people take tentative steps out of isolation to breath the freer air of “normality”, there can be no better time to consider what Canada Day means; what makes you happy to know that you would rather be here than anywhere else.

For most, the reflections stop at recognizing the personal freedoms and safety the country provides, the material things it offers like food security, a warm home, and whatever gadget or alliance they consider the basic materials of life. Even though there are other aspects of Canada to consider, satisfying the basic needs of living has always been the primary human requirement wherever they live.

Material considerations aside, this 154th year of ‘Confederation” demands, more than ever, a country wide conversation to answer these questions: “Who are we? What are our ideals?”   

The urgency of answering these questions cannot be overstated in light of what came to pass less than a month ago. Of course we speak of the discovery of the remains of 215 indigenous children in unmarked graves on the grounds of a residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia.

The residential school system separated the children from their families and communities in order to assimilate them into the dominant white European Canadian culture. It is estimated that over 150,000 children were placed in the system, and the number of deaths resulting from minimal health care and outright physical and mental abuse could be as high as 6,000. At its height, the residential schools numbered around 130 scattered around Canada. So there are many more corpses to unearth.

No doubt discussions about Canada Day will address the usual issues like the teaching of Canadian history, multiculturalism, the need to find a national identity, and the meaning of Canadian citizenship; discussions that will be sharpened by the plain truth spoken from 215 indigenous graves.

The national embarrassment that came with the discoveries, which resulted in the toppling of the statues of Sir John A. MacDonald and Egerton Ryerson, two architects of the residential school system, forced the hand of the country to speak honestly about the settler society that it has always been and the ills that visited the people who the settlers met; people who knew no other land.

Now, we have virtually a clean slate on which to define a national culture or spirit, and to answer the question, “what does it mean to be a Canadian.” And just in case those who form part of the continuous flow of immigrants think that they are not connected to the pioneering European settlers, you should think again; you may be squatting on ancient graves of the First Nations.

The unearthing of the 215 confirms an essential fact – the national cultural project is constantly evolving. Now we have an opportunity to help write a truthful history of Canada knowing that in the writing we will discover that all must make sacrifices to correct the wrongs that is staring us in the face or be consumed by ignoring it.