Birthday or burden?

I wasn’t prepared for the concept that there might be anybody that wouldn’t want to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday.

I have been looking forward to this anniversary year since my childhood. Having entered the world just over five years after the 1967 centennial celebrations, I was genuinely excited during my early grade-school years when I realized that I would still be relatively young – 44, going on 45 – when our great nation turned 150. (Similarly, I like the thought that I might actually be of reasonably sound mind and body if I’m still alive when Canada hits the 175-year mark, not to mention the outside chance that I could reach our bicentennial in 2067.)

So it’s been disconcerting for me to realize that a significant portion of the population doesn’t see July 1 as a particularly happy day and feels we’re missing a far more important milestone – specifically, Canada’s aboriginal community.

Over the past year, we’ve heard a growing number of statements from the First Nations arts and culture sector, as well as its general leadership, to remind us all that the history of what we now define as Canada dates back roughly 13,000 to 15,000 years before Confederation.

Accompanying these historical refreshers is the grim reality that cohabitation attempts between this land’s original inhabitants and its latter-day arrivals would prove uneasy at best and downright horrific, bordering on outright genocide, at worst.

Centuries later, their descendants still struggle to come to terms with seemingly-basic services such as clean drinking water for First Nations communities. They drag their feet on the disproportionate disappearance and murder of indigenous women and one of the greatest shames of this – or any – nation, Canada’s residential school system.

I was horrified to realize, via a documentary Cathy and I watched the night before I wrote this column, that residential schools still existed in this country until 1996. Only 21 years ago. I have no idea how any land mass calling itself a civilized country could allow this to occur at all, let alone during our lifetimes.

And yet here we are, wrapping ourselves in the Canadian flag, proclaiming to the world that ours is a history and culture that doesn’t glorify violence and offers opportunity and security for all.
Now, I’m not going to sit here and tell you I’ve suddenly stopped celebrating Canada’s sesquicentennial. I do, however, recognize that it’s not as simple as handing someone a piece of red and white cake and expecting centuries’ worth of problems to suddenly disappear.

Not every birthday is a happy birthday. Take the Canso Causeway’s 50th anniversary celebrations. I was honoured to be among those putting together an ambitious list of historical and cultural activities for a week-long party that stretched around the Strait area.
But I was also astounded to learn that many people in our area didn’t share my enthusiasm – specifically, the communities of Mulgrave and Point Tupper, which were forever changed by the end of the pre-Causeway ferry service in 1955.

Much to my surprise, the list of dissenters also included the Mi’kmaw community. When I contacted a local aboriginal artist to consider participating in a “Causeway Ceilidh” designed to celebrate the area’s many cultures, he immediately rejected me, declaring that Canada’s First Nations weren’t consulted by anybody involved with the causeway’s construction.

I was dumbfounded. The Strait of Canso was several kilometers away from any Mi’kmaw community I could imagine. Why would they need to be consulted?

I didn’t get it then. Twelve years later, I’m much closer to understanding this man’s concerns. The land and the water that most of us know as the Maritimes is still seen by many as Mi’kma’ki, which is the traditional name given to it by its original inhabitants. To simply assume that it bears only one identity is a disservice to those whose ancestors spent centuries caring for it.

We did indeed have a Mi’kmaw portion of our “Causeway Ceilidh” – within its first 10 minutes, as a matter of fact. We also set aside 10 minutes for stories, songs and poems delivered by, and about, the people of Point Tupper and Mulgrave, as well as another segment devoted to songs by those who only see the causeway as a mournful departure point for Cape Breton.

All of these voices are part and parcel of the Canso Causeway story, just as mass land appropriation, bloodshed and cultural marginalization are unavoidable aspects of Canada’s relationship with its First Nations.

May we keep moving forward in addressing these issues, to allow all Canadians to see July 1 as a birthday and not a burden, this year and every year.