CANADA 150: What it means to be Canadian

Commentary by Nate Smelle

For the first half of 2017 the buzz about Canada’s 150th birthday steadily grew louder. Now that Canada Day has come to pass that noise has started to fade and the invoices need to be paid. Frankly, I had not given the whole ordeal much thought until I learned a few days before the party that it would cost taxpayers half a billion dollars. Also noticing that the federal government spent just $6 million nationwide on Canada Day celebrations in 2015 my expectations going in this year were high.

A fan of closing down streets for the sake of a good time, my first impression of the Canada 150 parade in Pelham was a good one. The sun was shining, people were smiling, everyone seemed to be having a great time. Walking over to Harold Black Park, the good vibes continued to flow throughout the day and into the night. There was music, dancing, public art, games, cake, fireworks, someone selling beer out of their trunk in the parking area. A pretty good Canada Day all around.

Getting home later that night, I thought about the day behind me and how it stacked up in comparison to other Canada Days in the past. It was at this point my maple syrup began to turn sour. Certainly, the extra $494 million spent this year must have enhanced the festivities in some noticeable way? Not seeing much of a difference between Canada Day 2015 and the one I experienced earlier that day, I asked myself what was missing. As far as I could see it was just another July 1 that had come and gone.

Giving it some more thought and doing a little digging online, it didn’t take long to discover, at least in my mind, what was absent from the allegedly historic celebration. Pondering my expectations, it occurred to me that there was nothing that really struck me as profoundly Canadian about the Canada 150 celebrations that I experienced in person or came across on the web. Sure, the over-abundance of Chinese-manufactured Canadian flags and swag projected an illusion of patriotism, but $500 million should buy a hell of a lot more memories than any memorabilia can provide.

Meant to be a monumental moment in Canadian history, the feds seemed to do virtually nothing to remind us of what it truly means to be Canadian. In fact, for someone completely new to the country it may seem like the entire nation was created spontaneously in a lab by the British on July 1, 1867. There was virtually no recognition of Canada prior to colonization aside from a few feathers and drums displayed here and there to show the cameras how progressive our government can look. Is this tokenism an acceptable and sincere step towards truth and reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples, who have inhabited this land since time immemorial?

Though the lack of an Indigenous presence may have tarnished the authenticity of Canada 150 festivities, I do understand why many in the Indigenous community may not have felt like celebrating. When members of the Bawaating Water Protectors tried to erect a tipi near where the party was about to take place, to raise awareness that the land where Parliament Hill is located was never surrendered to the Crown by the Algonquin Anishinaabe First Nation, they were not welcomed with open arms. Instead, they were greeted with handcuffs and taken away.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared during the 2015 election that he would put Indigenous issues back on the table and renew a nation-to-nation relationship between the Canadian government and Indigenous Peoples. Yet, after taking office he has refused to honour this commitment, and in most cases by doing the exact opposite. Without blinking he has disregarded the Prophet River and West Moberly First Nations’ opposition to B.C.’s Site C Hydroelectric Dam, and ignored the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs’ demands to scrap Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain. Trudeau has also approved Enbridge’s Line 3 replacement pipeline projects despite opposition from the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, while at the same time advocating to revive the dead-in-the-water Keystone XL Pipeline, which is opposed by several First Nations on both sides of the border. Is this how the Canadian government negotiates in good faith?

With half a billion dollars squirreled away for Canada 150 celebrations by the Harper/Trudeau coalition, the sesquicentennial bash could have been used as a unique, once-every-150-years opportunity to begin rebuilding the government’s relationship with Indigenous Peoples. That however would have taken political will and a backbone when it comes to Indigenous and environmental issues – two things our current prime minister is not yet known for. Over the next five years the feds have allocated a total of $828.2 million to spend on First Nations and Inuit Health Investments. That’s $165.64 million each year to cover: chronic and infectious diseases, maternal and child health, primary care, mental wellness, home and palliative care, drug strategy—harm reduction measures and the non-insured health benefits program.

Instead of burning up $500 million on party supplies and preparations, so much more could have been done. An additional $100 million dedicated to maternal and child health in Indigenous communities for each of the next five years, rather than $83.2 million split up over five years. Considering the federal government still subsidizes the oil and gas industry with $1 billion in taxpayer money each year, ideas like these are not unreasonable. If we can afford to continue making the rich richer, we can afford to prevent the sick from getting sicker.

When I think of what it means to be a Canadian I think of helping your neighbor clear snow from their driveway, sharing the wealth and shrinking the gap between the rich and the poor. I think of the Rocky Mountains, the Niagara Escarpment, the Fonthill Kame, the Comfort Maple, the Arctic, the Great Lakes and the Thundering Waters of Niagara Falls. These are the things that define us as Canadians. Before we can define the type of nation we aspire to become, we need to understand where we came from, who we are and what we stand on guard for.

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