The Pemberton & District Museum has a plan, to create a trove of memories and tales and jokes and funny sayings, from around these parts, as a way to commemorate the 150th year of confederation.
I personally feel a bit conflicted about the whole Canada 150 years anniversary – especially if it’s just a billed as a celebration of a nation’s happy history. As Professor Kathleen Mahoney from the University of Calgary wrote in a recent editorial in the Globe and Mail: Canada’s history is a lie. And that is a big roadblock to meaningful reconciliation.
Her thoughtful essay is below.
What I take from Professor Mahoney’s challenge, and from the Museum’s initiative, is an invitation for everyone to share their stories. A tapestry of stories is a way of reclaiming history from the monochrome nature of The Official Version. Of co-creating a richer story of Who We Area.
Crowd-sourced stories about this community we live in, this place we inhabit, is a way we can validate everyone’s experiences, and bridge the divide that is caused by having an official narrative, a set-in-stone history book full of inaccuracies and oversights, all those generations of stories that were swept into the dark basements and scary rooms that no one every really wants to have to go into.
I don’t think that’s an easy thing – opening up to the “unofficial” stories. Media has taught us to expect a certain narrative. And the familiarity of that expected narrative is safe and comforting. Dark stories, loss, grief, trauma, tales of suffering – these things make me uncomfortable. I’m not trained. I’m no professional. I’m a mostly bumbling awkward human being, who frankly likes books better. But the other day, as I walked out of a room, where a young friend was looking at photos and reliving some memories of her dead brother, because I felt uncomfortable and unsure what to do with my words, my body parts, all that swirl of emotion, I realize that part of the call to being a better human, for me, might just be acknowledging that feeling of discomfort, and taking a big breath, and sitting there, still. My 9 year old friend has learned to be with that loss, because it’s been part of her story for five years. She has become more practiced at sitting with it. And while I’m fortunate enough not to know that degree of loss and pain, I can still practice sitting with my discomfort, in order that I can make room for the full complexity of her stories and experiences. At the very least, I can start working on it.
The roadblock to reconciliation: Canada’s origin story is false
In 2017 Canada will celebrate the 150th anniversary of Confederation. Canada’s origin story will be celebrated – the story of the British North America (BNA) Act, the Fathers of Confederation, and the British/French duality that together formed the bedrock of the free, equal, diverse democracy we believe ourselves to be.
But here’s the problem: our origin story is false. In 1996, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples observed, “A country cannot be built on a living lie.” After 150 years in denial, coming to terms with our true origin story is long overdue.
Recognition that indigenous peoples were founders of the nation must be acknowledged in a formal, legal way. Only then will there be a solid foundation for Canada to reconcile its past and lay the foundation for a new relationship with its first peoples.
Origin stories are important. Every country, every community, every family, has an origin story to express who they are and where they have come from. A nation’s origin story serves as a script for citizenship; it helps citizens navigate their world, form relationships, and solidify their identities. But when a nation’s origin story ignores the existence and contributions of those integral to its founding, it can create a deep sense of alienation, isolation and hostility.
The accepted story of Canada’s origin tells us the nation came into being on July 1, 1867. Thirty-six “Fathers of Confederation,” representing the British and the French colonial powers, signed the British North America Act, setting out the governance structure for the new country. Significantly, it expressly protected the English and French languages, cultures and civil rights.
Indigenous Canadians are invisible in this origin story even though they were present on the land for thousands of years prior to Confederation and without their contributions Canada would not be the country it is today.
For example, the fur trade – the backbone of the economy for more than 250 years – depended upon indigenous hunters, oarsmen, guides, and traders for its viability. Without the fur trade, the colonial ambitions of exploration, settlement, and economic and social development would have failed miserably.
But by far the most significant aspect was the vast tracts of land acquired through treaty negotiations with the indigenous peoples – lands that have produced immense riches, making Canada one of the wealthiest nations in the world.
But indigenous people did not receive recognition for their contributions to building Canada, nor a fair share of the ensuing wealth. Instead, they were classified as non-citizens and subjected to unequal treatment based on racist philosophical and legal justifications – namely, the discovery doctrine and the formal equality principle.
The discovery doctrine was the self-serving legal principle whereby Europeans claimed rights of sovereignty and ownership of regions they claimed to “discover.” Under this doctrine, indigenous peoples could not claim ownership of their lands, but only the right to occupy and use the land.
The formal equality principle dates back to the teachings of Plato and Aristotle, whose definition of equality was that likes were to be treated alike. As such, discrimination against slaves, women and indigenous peoples was not considered unequal treatment.
Together, the two principles assured the perpetual dominance of the British and the French founders over the land and the permanent subordination of the indigenous peoples who occupied it.
The Supreme Court of Canada finally rejected the formal equality doctrine in 1989. The discovery doctrine too, has been widely discredited as racist and in violation of fundamental human rights.
The impact of the misguided, racist doctrines is an origin story that has left indigenous Canadians marginalized, dispossessed and unrecognized, and the rest of us wondering who we really are.
The opportunity to set the record straight is upon us. To this end I propose a consultation with parliamentarians, indigenous leaders, provincial governments and Canadians more broadly to discuss how a parliamentary motion, statute, bill or proclamation might be approved to formally recognize Canada’s true origins in advance of the 150th anniversary of Confederation. This will allow us to celebrate the possibilities for lasting reconciliation and set the stage for a genuine nation to nation relationship.