Help us deliver reliable news during this pandemic.
We are working tirelessly to bring you trusted information about COVID-19. Support our efforts by subscribing today.No Thanks Subscribe
Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 3/7/2017 (1012 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Sunlight streamed into Johnston Terminal, sunlight and the jovial din of the Canada Day crowds outside the window. Couples laughed. Children squealed. From a nearby stage wafted the sweet voice of local songwriter Sierra Noble.
The man settled into a chair. Four months ago, he trudged into Canada through knee-deep snow, fleeing sectarian violence on the other side of the globe. (I withhold his name here only because this was primarily a social visit.)
"For some, Canada is a beacon of hope. For others, particularly indigenous people, it is the perpetrator of ongoing violence and trauma. Both of these things can be true at once; the fact of the former does not negate the latter."
He grew up in a vast city. When he first arrived in Winnipeg, in the frigid grip of winter, he was surprised to see its streets often empty, its citizens huddled inside. He wondered if there was more to see, what this place was like.
Now? He nodded at the scene outside the window: The Forks blossomed with people, a garden of red and white.
Oh yes, he said, sipping his dark coffee. He likes it in Canada, where he has already made friends and gone fishing. He is hopeful of his future here; the strength of his professional qualifications earned him a three-year work permit.
He feels safe here, he added, compared to where he was. He feels welcome. As he walked through The Forks, he blended in with the crowds: many of the faces in the sun-dappled mass looked like him, and also like everyone.
It was a lovely picture: new immigrants, long-ago immigrants, refugees, settlers, indigenous people, foreign students, tourists and visitors. Everyone lined up for mini-doughnuts, sipping lemonade, sharing July 1 in a thousand small ways.
Yet on the other side of The Forks’ plaza, atop the blue glass tower that overlooks the Assiniboine River, a long black banner fluttered from an observation deck. That afternoon, activists tied it up to pose a challenging public question.
"Why celebrate 150 years of colonialism, imperialism, patriarchy, capitalism, broken treaties?"
On the cobblestones below, people craned their neck to read it and snapped photos with their phones. In the heart of a celebration, the conflict at the heart of Canadian experience was sharply exposed. A question awaited an answer.
For some, Canada is a beacon of hope. For others, particularly indigenous people, it is the perpetrator of ongoing violence and trauma. Both of these things can be true at once; the fact of the former does not negate the latter.
And so the 150th anniversary of Canada’s founding was restless, unsettled. In Osborne Village, activists handed out leaflets proclaiming "F--- the 150." On River Avenue, the Augustine United Church’s signboard framed it more gently.
"Canada 150, a nation born," the church signboard read. "Kanata 15,000. Much older."
Near the church, advocates for Shoal Lake 40 — the site of Winnipeg’s water, which since 1997 has been under a boil-water advisory — marked July 1 with discussions and drumming. They sprayed water stencils on the sidewalk.
"Water has given us life all these years, and provided for our people," one stencil read, a quote from Shoal Lake 40 Chief Daryl Redsky. "Our water is dying and she needs our help. We have to do something to give it back life."
All over Winnipeg on Saturday, similar challenges sprouted. In front of the legislature, indigenous grandmothers tended a sacred fire; on the steps, about 200 people gathered to honour these centuries of Indigenous resilience.
They carried red dresses, in honour of missing and murdered indigenous women. They heard from residential school survivors, and elders, and young people. They named the pain of colonization; they called out for a future of healing.
“I think if we’re going to celebrate anything on this day, it’ll be 150 years of our ancestors surviving Canada,” she told a national audience. “Surviving the genocidal policies of Canada. Surviving the dispossessment, the displacement." –Tasha Spillett
On the steps of the provincial seat of government, longtime advocate Tasha Spillett spoke about paths forward. Earlier that day, she’d been interviewed on CBC’s live national broadcast by outgoing anchor Peter Mansbridge.
"I think if we’re going to celebrate anything on this day, it’ll be 150 years of our ancestors surviving Canada," she told a national audience. "Surviving the genocidal policies of Canada. Surviving the dispossessment, the displacement.
"Before reconciliation, has to come truth," she continued. "Part of that truth is looking really courageously at the fact that the colonial project still continues in Canada. How might we begin to reconcile that which hasn’t ended?"
These myriad voices and actions may be the most lasting legacy of Canada 150. It was a day that was defined not by things bought with $500 million of federal spending, but by challenging discussions that rose from the grassroots.
If these challenges weaken the concept of Canada, it is only in the areas where it ought to be weakened: particularly, in its 150-year history of silencing and pushing aside indigenous people. If that tradition dies, well, good riddance.
Instead, what unfurled across Manitoba on Saturday was a vast conversation. It was by turns difficult and engaging, hopeful and hurting. Above all, it was honest: more than any Canada Day before, it told the nation’s story in earnest.
For generations, Canada has been a crossroads nation. We meet here as refugees, as settlers, as residential school survivors; there is hope, joy and pain. So it’s fitting that, on Canada Day, unanswered questions are asked again.
Here’s to the hope that, every time July 1 rolls around, we will be closer to finding those answers.
Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.
Updated on Monday, July 3, 2017 at 2:50 PM CDT: Adds images, turns off comments.