U of G Profs on Marking a Controversial Celebration
Story by Andrew Vowles
For U of G political science professor David MacDonald, this year’s Canada Day and sesquicentennial celebrations went largely unremarked. On a research leave in New Zealand this year, he spent July 1 at a conference. “We didn’t actually do very much,” he says. “It was me with a bunch of New Zealand foreign ministry people.”
Something more than distance and circumstance explained MacDonald’s ambivalence about marking Canada 150 – and from his research on Indigenous issues, he knows he’s not alone. Speaking over the phone from New Zealand this past summer, he says, “A lot of my Facebook friends were planning ‘non-celebrations’ and highlighting genocide and Indigenous resurgence. With these strongly conflicting interpretations, it’s not clear what that anniversary represents.”
Has Canada 150 been a celebration of a nation – or a “celebration of colonialism,” as a group of Indigenous artists called the event in a national news story earlier this year? U of G scholars say the occasion has offered a bit of both.
You didn’t have to go halfway around the world to feel conflicted. Even in Ottawa, history professor Matthew Hayday felt the push-pull. He had hoped to visit Parliament Hill on Canada Day, but crowds and lineups – and attendant security — meant he had to be content with watching official events aired on a big screen a block away. By then, there had already been a reminder that not everyone saw the occasion in the same celebratory spirit.
The official program included an Indigenous presence, from a performance by Buffy Sainte Marie to ceremonial dancing around the Centennial Flame. But just before Canada Day, activists set up a demonstration teepee on the Parliament Hill lawn to draw attention to Indigenous issues. Hayday figures that their presence set the tone for remarks by officials including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who visited the teepee before July 1. “I had a sense that there was a ramping-up of language around Indigenous issues in what was said by dignitaries,” he says. “Justin Trudeau used ‘Turtle Island’ in how he spoke about Canada, and there was a lot more explicit language about mistakes and ongoing challenges” involving Canada’s relationship with Indigenous Peoples.
Hayday studies how national celebrations and commemorations have helped shape Canada’s sense of itself. In 2016, he co-edited the book Celebrating Canada: Holidays, National Days and the Crafting of Identities; a companion volume will be published this year. In an article earlier this year in the Ottawa Citizen, he pointed out that controversy over commemoration is nothing new.
“Dissent about celebrating Canada goes back to the early years of Confederation,” he wrote. Commemorative events have changed from the “British-centric” flag-waving of the 1950s to today’s promotion of a bilingual and multicultural country that highlights Indigenous cultures and languages. Hayday ended his essay with a suggestion that dissent signals a healthy democracy, and that there’s hope for reconciliation between Canada’s Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.
For MacDonald, that kind of hope lies in broadening discussions to take in different viewpoints and accommodate various narratives. “We have to stop compartmentalizing Indigenous issues and saying these issues are separate from the story of Canada,” says MacDonald, who received a U of G Research Leadership Chair Award to study Indigenous-settler relations in Canada and New Zealand. He took part in Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and is writing a book about Canadian reconciliation issues. “It’s all interconnected. We can’t celebrate the prosperity of settler Canadians and not acknowledge what has been taken from Indigenous Peoples.”
He points to New Zealand as a model for relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, including the development of biculturalism based on Indigenous-settler power-sharing. “I think a lot of Canadian history has been about trying to create a country that’s coherent and has its own identity,” he says. “Hopefully we will get there. We might be mature enough now to start considering these questions more seriously.”
U of G professor Kim Anderson says she doesn’t begrudge Canada 150 celebrations. At the same time, she says, “Indigenous Peoples say there’s nothing to celebrate in terms of what Canada has meant for Indigenous nations.” Anderson, who is Cree-Métis, completed a PhD in history at U of G; she joined the Department of Family Relations and Applied Nutrition in early 2017. She’s now co-editing a book to be published in 2018 called Keetsahnak: Our Missing and Murdered Indigenous Sisters. “It feels like adding insult to have to keep being reminded about celebratory stuff.”
Referring to reports of youth suicides in Northern communities and questions about the mandate and progress of Canada’s inquiry on missing and murdered Indigenous women, she says, “Those latest headlines show just how far we haven’t come.” Despite setbacks and what she calls “reconciliation fatigue” stemming from perceived lack of progress on numerous reports, commissions and recommendations, Anderson says she’s optimistic about the possibility of improved relations and prospects for Indigenous people in Canada. “Generally the Canadian population is more educated and more committed to making change. We’re in a better place than we were 20 years ago.”
She’s part of a new project within her college to further incorporate Indigenous ways of knowing into teaching and research. Beyond that, her own studies will include looking at “Indigenizing” the U of G campus. Anderson says universities have a role in advocating for reconciliation and in studying pertinent issues from land and resource sharing to preservation of stories, history and language. She’s heartened by recent developments at U of G, including hiring of tenure-track Indigenous faculty members (including her own position), support for Indigenous learners and appointment of a special adviser to the provost on Aboriginal initiatives. That post is held by Cara Wehkamp, manager of the Office of Intercultural Affairs within Student Life.
Anderson helped plan a two-day symposium on campus this fall called “Canada 150: Reflect and Envision” on Indigenous issues, food security and border security. Speaking in early September, organizer Michelle Fach, director of Open Learning and Educational Support at U of G, says the gathering of experts from on and off campus was intended to discuss Canada’s global role in the 21st century. “Those seemed to be topics that were top of mind,” she says. “They will have an impact on Canada and how we exercise any sort of global influence.”
Indigenous Works on Display
Sparking discussion about Indigenous and non-Indigenous relations is the purpose of a new exhibit opened this fall at the Art Gallery of Guelph (AGG).
Called “150 Acts: Art, Activism, Impact,” the show is funded by nearly $200,000 from the Canadian Heritage Department, and will run until March 2018.
The exhibit features sculpture, paintings, drawings, textiles, installation and multimedia works by Indigenous artists drawn from the gallery’s collection and from contemporary artists.
“Creative expression has a unique capacity to change perception by expanding our insight into other experiences,” says gallery director Shauna McCabe.
Pointing out that a number of galleries and museums have featured Indigenous works this year, McCabe says cultural institutions have “a responsibility to carefully examine our relationship to Indigenous communities and histories at this moment, and to provide a platform that is shaped by the perspectives, voices and aesthetics of the First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities.”