By Owen Charters
I had a high school teacher who liked to do a thought experiment with the class. He’d ask: “If we made contact with aliens from another planet, would the concept of individual, sovereign countries matter as much as it does today?” As the discussion wound on, we realized that there is always an Us and a Them. The idea of nation states is an evolution of Us vs Them for the current era. Nation states might not matter when the Us is the Earth vs Them, the aliens from another planet: nations would become increasingly irrelevant as we regrouped around this new Us/Them configuration. And don’t get me started on the galactic federation or other governing bodies imagined for the universe.
But today, right now, we operate under nation states. Our news is filled with the issues of how China, the United States, Russia, or the United Kingdom are acting. Who has the highest vaccine rates? What international incident is filling the headlines? Who is irritating who? Nation states matter.
And I’ve always been proud to be a Canadian, proud of Canada, the nation state. I’ve indulged in the Us/Them of waving the maple leaf and cherishing a beaver as our national animal. As a child, I’ve waved the paper and cardboard stick flag proudly that was handed out at celebrations each Canada Day. I’ve been smug and patriotic when visiting other countries, proud to be a Canadian. Catching sight of the Maple Leaf sewn on a backpack in a foreign country gets my heart racing. I like wearing plaid and flannel. I own many toques. I should invest in a maple syrup sugar bush given how much of the golden nectar is consumed in our house. I like visiting other countries, but I’m always happy to be waved past border security and back onto home soil. My heart rate slows and my blood pressure drops when the scenery outside the car window becomes the rocks, lakes, and pine trees of the Canadian Shield. I’ve lived by the idea that you should see more of your own country before you see others (and that’s challenging when you live in country as vast as ours). My family has matching red Canada shirts for July 1. And the Canadian flag often flies prominently outside our house.
Why so proud? Canada stands out on the world stage. A peaceful, democratic country. A country that created peacekeeping, welcomes refugees and immigrants. It has a cohesive, generally well-run healthcare and social support system (with a few holes in it). A country that has mostly learned to live with differences, embracing them instead of suppressing them. The U.S. is often referred to as a ‘melting pot’ of cultures, blended together to form something new. Canada is a tossed salad, where individual identities remain, with a light dressing of common cause sprinkled on top. That seems so much better.
Now, we have a crescendo of calls to cancel Canada Day. We are living in the shadow of two immense tragedies. At least 750 graves in Cowessess First Nation. 215 children’s graves in Tk’emlups Te Secwépemc First Nation. These are but two of the over 150 residential schools across the country, and the horrors will keep coming. We have the duty to observe, to remember, to commemorate the thousands of children lost. Statues of Sir John A. Macdonald are coming down or being relocated. Names of institutions are being reconsidered and changed. We have a history of treating others badly. Of taking land. Destroying resources. Killing Indigenous people. Racism. Polluting. Denial of adequate resources and clean water to Indigenous communities and First Nations.
History does not change, but the telling of history changes based on the teller. What is remembered, what is suppressed. History is being revised to incorporate the other stories, the stories that were conveniently neglected, swept under the rug. It is all the history of Canada, the beautiful and the ugly. It is an acknowledgement that we aren’t all roses—we are also thorns.
I am a realist, and I am an optimist. To be Canadian is to accept and live with the tension of being many things. Of being proud of the good things built by this country. To be ashamed by the wrongs perpetrated by this country. We are a country of compromises. Of living in the in-between. French and English. East and West. Land and sea. Indigenous and settler. Recent immigrant vs multi-generational.
This country took almost everything from my ancestors. I am torn by that terrible familial history and the hope I have for what this country can be. This country has condoned violence and the murder of Indigenous people. Yet I still believe that the country strives for better. To atone for our sins. To Reconcile. To acknowledge. To never repeat.
I am awake to the nightmares that this country has levied on many. I dream of the possibilities this country holds to do better.
On July 1, we will not be cancelling Canada Day, but we will observe a more sombre celebration in my household. Red shirts may be mixed with orange. And the flag we’ll raise is another compromise—the Indigenous Canada flag, designed by Mulidzas-Curtis Wilson of the Wei Wai Kum First Nation. I believe it embodies the realities of the two worlds that Canada is today: a history of unbearable tragedies and wrongs. And a future of Reconciliation, promises to be kept, and memories to be made sacred, bound that we never forget.