Canada Day a time for celebration and reflection

Today I was out celebrating Canada Day with friends and neighbours, but I was also doing a lot of thinking. I was thinking about the Wampum belt. About the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. About the future of an increasingly multicultural and urban Canada. About Canada, the Iroquois word for “village” and “the land” and Canada the serial winner of Fossil of the Year for its lack of leadership on climate change. I was thinking of this upcoming election, and even my childhood.

I was born in the small Inuit village of Inuvik, close to where the Deh Cho (Mackenzie River) meets the Arctic Ocean. There are a few things that stand out in my memory from my early childhood – smells and sounds in particular. I remember the smell of airplane fuel, grease, metal shavings and stale cigarette smoke in my dad’s airplane hangar. Another smell that floods me with memories is that of the moccasins and mukluks we wore, the fresh baked bannock that my mom learned how to make, the wet clay and sand on the banks of the river, and the fresh berries that we would pick behind our house. Then there were the sounds of the ice on the river heaving, cracking and booming in spring and the traditional drums and songs at the summer Jamboree. There was also being confronted by the startling, vacuous sound of quietness, in a birch bark canoe, in the middle of a placid lake.

Though the smell of mukluks and moccasins may make me nostalgic for my childhood, it has been living and working alongside urban Aboriginals in Vancouver’s DTES in particular that has given me my perspective on First Nations peoples and their relationship to the Canadian state.

Many of my First Nations friends and neighbours in East Van harbour a mistrust, an anxiety, at times even a fear of what decisions will be made in Ottawa next. It’s understandable, too many of those decisions have negatively impacted their lives. Many of them also carry with them a courageous defiance, driven by the strength of self-knowledge, others still bring a deep care, humour and empathy to their work and their entire being. Some march, picket and protest, while some work with non-Aboriginals in innovative place-based ways. Some of them are all of these or do all of these at once. They constantly challenge me to reflect on my perspective and choices as a privileged white settler male in a society plagued by inequality. Something not lost on me as I seek election to Parliament.

I recently saw UBC Political Science and First Nations Scholar Glen Coulthard speak at SFU about the launch of his recent book, Red Skin, White Masks. In his talk he made reference to the Wampum belt and the original vision of colonial settlers and Indigenous peoples living respectfully together. The Wampum Belt was a form of currency and also a symbolic item presented to acknowledge agreements, treaties and such. Here’s a description of one such famous Wampum belt presented shortly before confederation to early European settlers:

The principles were embodied in the belt by virtue of its design: two rows of purple wampum beads on a background of white beads represent a canoe and a European ship. The parallel paths represent the rules governing the behaviour of the Aboriginal and European peoples. The Kaswentha stipulates that neither group will force their laws, traditions, customs or language on each other, but will coexist peacefully as each group follows their own path.

I grew up with Glen and his siblings Erin and Steve in the Northwest Territories and later the Okanagan, where our families moved in the 1980s. Occasionally, later in life, Steve and Glen and I would have discussions and debates about capitalism, colonialism, and how to make a better world. We each brought different perspectives, and of course Glen being the oldest was always a few years ahead in his reading and his thinking. Steve and I tended to put forward a thesis of us collectively making change from within “the system” and Glen a thesis that saw the system itself as the problem. At that talk at SFU his commitment to that thesis was stronger than ever as he dismissed the message of the Wampum Belt as demonstrably irrelevant now that the totalizing power of colonial capitalism has “polluted the entire river” we have been traveling on. An analogy for that capitalist colonial system driving the destruction of the planet we collectively rely on for life – and how it needed to be dismantled immediately.

I’m open to hearing the most critical assessments of Canada like Glen’s because we shouldn’t be afraid of these discussions, we should see them less as a threat to our identity and more as an opportunity to evolve and grow. On the ground and in our own ways, my friends and colleagues and I whose families settled here recently or long ago are working to evolve and grow as we decolonize ourselves, questioning and learning what it means to live here and now in the best way we can, with our First Nations friends, relatives and colleagues. We have much work to do if we want to see the original hopes and values of the Wampum belt recognized. The values, local knowledge, customs and culture of First Nations are fundamental building blocks in that effort. Though I’m not of First Nations descent, I can embrace these things as instructive to me having a healthier relationship with both the land, and the people, here in this coastal region of BC that I love. The Coast Salish nations have after all, welcomed me and you so many times to these lands that have never been lost in war or seceded, and encouraged us to live responsibly and healthily together.

With this in mind I believe that being open to the idea of decolonizing ones self (mentally, emotionally, and in the practice of our daily lives) requires being open to a fundamental rethinking of Canadian statehood and what Canadian Federalism could best look like as we work towards a better future. An example of this might be a form of Canadian Federalism that embraces both First Nations government and municipal government as direct partners in federal decision making, and of course an elected Senate. This is a change we could collectively push for within “the system” – our system of democracy or system of government more specifically.

I feel that decolonization can be a threatening word to some, it confronts us with fundamental, existential questions about our country and our way of life. But if we look at decolonization more as our invitation to evolve and improve ourselves it no longer rests in a narrative of conflict, it becomes situated in a narrative of transformation and cooperation. If we are truly to reconcile our past 148 years of colonial rule and the legacy it has wrought then we have to accept that the status quo is unacceptable.  

My deep love and concern for Canada the land and Canada the village (the people) has been mirrored by an equally deep anxiety and concern about the actions of Canada the state over the past decade, led by Harper’s new brand of conservatives. Ironically it is also the Harper Government that has proven clearly that Canada is not some unchangeable monolith. The damage this Government has done to Canadian democracy, to our environment, to our economy, our social safety net and our relations with First Nations can and will be undone. So when I participated in Canada Day celebrations today it was because I believe we can celebrate living together here and now, celebrate our communities, and celebrate our shared achievements while still being critical of this country. In fact it’s our right and our collective duty as citizens, for we ourselves are ultimately responsible for the state, and the fate, of our democratic institutions and the futures they shape for us.

I’m also excited for Canada because we know where we need to go from here – from the recommendations put forward by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (and other commissions and reports before it) to building a green, inclusive and equitable economy, protecting the natural environment, and addressing the urgent issue of climate change. Our work is laid out before us and yes we have a lot of it, but I think we are ready to take up this challenge. We are ready to chart new trajectories, new ways of living, communicating and governing that will foster pride and thankfulness in the hearts and minds of our descendants 148 years from now, wherever they may live. For we are also responsible for our actions today and how we will be viewed in history.

So what might our new Wampum belt look like? It’s not for me to answer, but I certainly feel it is a question more of us should be asking. Parts of that question may already be answered in the Truth and Reconciliation Report, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples or in the ideas and writing of people like Glen. What remains to be seen is how courageous we Canadians will be in engaging one another in this transformative work.

So with this in mind, I wish you a happy and hopeful Canada Day.