In two weeks, we shall celebrate Canada Day, which marks 154 years since the passage of the British North America Act. On July 1, 1867, the Dominion of Canada was officially established as a self-governing entity within the British Empire. There were three provinces which came together to form the Dominion – Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and what was known as the Province of Canada, which consisted of Canada West (former Upper Canada, current day Ontario) and Canada East (former Lower Canada, current day Quebec).
Other provinces joined later – Manitoba and the Northwest Territories (NWT) were created in 1870, when Rupert’s Land was purchased from the Hudson’s Bay Company for three hundred thousand pounds, or $1.5 million. Not wanting to be left on the margins, British Columbia joined in 1871, and PEI in 1873. Both Alberta and Saskatchewan were formed in 1905, carved out of the NWT by federal government decree. Newfoundland and Labrador did not join the confederation of Canada until 1949, and Nunavut was created in 1999.
So really, Canada as we know it today has only existed since 1 April 1999 – some twenty-two years. Still, any excuse for a party, eh?
Although in truth, it is a hard time to be Canadian, and there are a growing number of people who are suggesting that we don’t celebrate Canada Day this year.
Normally, we would describe the stereotypical Canuck as polite, quiet, reserved, and generally nice. We are passionate about our local community and our province. Nearly all of us ice skate or play hockey. Even if we can’t play, we watch, and whichever team we support, we all boo Toronto. We drink coffee from a certain store because it happened to be once owned by a hockey player. We are proud that basketball and 5 pin bowling were both invented by Canadians (James Naismith, 1891, and T. E. Ryan, 1909, respectively), as were zippers, snow blowers, lawn sprinklers, instant mashed potatoes, peanut butter, insulin, cardiac pacemakers, canola, acetylene, the snowmobile, and many more1.
We consider ourselves more peaceable than our neighbours to the south, the loud and violent Americans. We consider ourselves more egalitarian than their colonial forebears, be they from the United Kingdom or France. We consider ourselves a welcoming country, open to refugees and economic migrants alike. We are proud that Lester B. Pearson, a former Prime Minister, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957 for organizing the United Nations Emergency Force to resolve the Suez Canal Crisis. Most of us are proud that another prime minister, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, introduced the Official Languages Act in 1979 to ensure that federal government services would be provided in both official languages, wherever population size warranted it.
Most of us are proud that peacekeeping is a celebrated part of what Canada is as a nation, and who Canadians are as a people, with over 125,000 Canadian military personnel serving in UN peacekeeping missions since 1947. We pride ourselves on being a modern, multicultural, secular society.
We don’t see ourselves as bigoted, racist, misogynistic, intolerant, homophobic or angry.
And yet, and yet.
Two weeks ago, the remains of 215 children were found buried in the grounds of what used to be the Kamloops Indian Residential School. These were ‘undocumented deaths’ – no known paper trail describes who they are, when they died, or how they died. They simply were taken away from their parents and sent to the school, and never went home.
This event was shocking in the numbers involved, but sadly not in the fact that it happened. The terror of the residential schools has been an open secret in First Nations communities for years, of families torn apart, of siblings and cousins never seen again. Six years ago, in 2015, “in order to redress the legacy of residential schools and advance the process of Canadian reconciliation”, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) made 94 Calls to Action.
The TRC noted that large numbers of Indigenous children who were sent to residential schools never returned to their home communities. Some children ran away, and others died at the schools. The Missing Children Project documents the deaths and the burial places of children who died while attending the schools. To date, more than 4,100 children who died while attending a residential school have been identified2. The fear is that there are many more. The discovery at Kamloops has prompted many First Nations to initiate searches of the grounds of the residential schools that existed in their communities. Who knows what the ground penetrating radar will find?
Hopefully, the horror of Kamloops has also prompted many Canadians to realize that so far there has been very little progress on any of the TRC Calls to Action. There has been a lot of talk, but according to a CBC report, as of last week eight of the Calls had been implemented.3
Last week the Federal Government produced a ‘National Action Plan’ in response to the findings and numerous recommendations of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG). The actual report of the MMIWG Inquiry was released two years ago, on June 3, 2019, and caused a stir because it described the disproportionate level of violence against Indigenous women and girls in Canada as a “genocide.”
I think that Mariah Charleson, Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council vice-president, described it best in her interview with a reporter from the Toronto Star4. Noting that it took two years for the federal government to come up with 23 short-term priorities and seven goals, her response was: “It fell far short of what we were expecting.”
She did not state the obvious – if an action plan has no deliverables, no landmarks, no immediate goals, no long-term goals, no timelines, and no budget, then can it actually be called a plan? No doubt there will be another committee struck to develop activities to address the priorities and goals. Meanwhile, the murders and the disappearances continue, with rationales and excuses justifying the lack of any appropriate consequences.
The National Action Plan was released a day before the one-year anniversary of Chantel Moore’s death – the 26-year-old Indigenous woman was fatally shot outside her New Brunswick apartment during a wellness check by an Edmundston police officer. No charges were laid against the involved officer, apparently because Ms. Moore had been drinking and approached him holding a small steak knife. The officer found himself trapped on a balcony and felt justified in shooting her to defend himself. He fired four times.
Earlier this week, a man in Thunder Bay, Ontario, was sentenced to eight years in prison for manslaughter. In 2017 he was 18 years old. He had been out drinking all day, and as he and friends were driving around that evening, he leaned out of the car window and threw a trailer hitch at two women, sisters, who were walking in their residential neighbourhood. “I got one”, he yelled. Barbara Kentner, of the Wabigoon Lake Ojibway First Nation, died of her injuries following what the judge called a misogynist, thrill-seeking and callous attack. Observing that eggs, bricks, garbage and bottles are frequently thrown at Indigenous people in the northern Ontario city, the judge said the man did not know this, he attacked her solely because she was female.
It is not just Indigenous people who are suffering. This past weekend, a family went out for an evening stroll in London, Ontario. It’s a small city, fewer than half a million people live there, and it is known for the parks and green space that extend along the banks of the Thames River. As one might expect, it is a predominantly Anglo community, with 75% of the population reporting they speak only English at home. But there is a growing population of new immigrants to Canada, with over 20% of the population claiming a language other than English or French as a mother tongue5. The family out for a walk last Sunday evening, who had lived in London for 14 years, were originally from Pakistan. And they were Muslim.
As they waited at an intersection for the ‘green man’ to indicate that they could cross safely, a man in a pick-up truck drove up onto the curb, at high speed, and ran them down. A 15-year-old girl, Yumna, her parents, Salmon and Mahida Afzaal, and her grandmother were all killed. Her nine-year-old brother Fayez survived, albeit with serious injuries. The man, who I shall not name, has been charged with four counts of first-degree murder and one of attempted murder, and the police are considering whether to lay terrorism charges.
This is not the only case of Islamophobia we have witnessed in Canada recently, In January 2017, six men were killed, and 19 others seriously injured, in a shooting at mosque in Quebec. Last year, a volunteer caretaker at a mosque on Toronto was stabbed to death by a man whose social media posts included the sharing of content from a site affiliated with a satanic neo-Nazi group. Even here on Prince Edward Island we have witnessed disturbing acts of intimidation and vandalism – a pig’s head was nailed to a post at the mosque, the truck of a contractor working at the site was set on fire, and so on. Small acts compared with the others, but no less disturbing.
It is hard to speculate why there is so much hate around. The perpetrators of these crimes tend to have one thing in common – they are usually young white males. They are often described as ‘normal’ men, who play hockey and drink coffee, who love pets. They are spoken of as being polite, quiet, reserved, and generally nice. Except when they are drinking, or sitting at a computer accessing racist, misogynistic, homophobic and politically inflammatory websites, I guess.
I recognize that we can do very little to influence these events. The Internet is like the open sewers you see in some cities, running parallel to the street and sluicing away a lot of garbage. There is usually a concrete berm which tries to control the direction of the flow, but sometimes the sewer is full and stuff splashes over the edges onto the street. Sometimes you see people down at the edge of the berm, picking through to see if anything interesting has washed up. You feel sorry for them, but you can’t, and don’t, do anything about it.
It seems to me that this is part of the problem. In doing nothing, we are doing something. The fact that we take no action is an action in itself. As those of us working in the north used to joke, in many cases the policy of the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development was to not have a policy. Many of us follow that same path. We are not calling out to those people who are picking through the edges of the Internet sewer, telling them about the dangers they are facing, the dangers of contamination from the filth they are handling, the dangers of falling in and being swept away by the flow.
When we receive a forwarded e-mail or tweet that is bigoted, racist, misogynistic, intolerant, homophobic or angry, we simply delete it. We might even shake our heads in dismay or disgust. But we don’t contact the sender, the friend or relative or co-worker who thought we might find it funny. We don’t want to upset anyone, or to be seen as overly sensitive, or be accused on political correctness, so we don’t say, “stop sending me this kind of thing”. And by not calling them out, we inadvertently help to perpetuate the problem.
I’ve decided that I am going to celebrate Canada Day this year. If our ever-changing COVID19 protocols allow people to get together, I’m going to go downtown and mingle with the other citizens of my city. If we are corralled in an online environment, I’ll go there instead, at least for a short time. In either space I shall take special care to say hello to everyone, especially those who don’t look like me. It might not mean a lot in the greater scheme of things, but it will to me.