We must pay tribute to the courage and sacrifices of our soldiers, past and present, and highlight their essential contribution to peace and democracy. But we must also highlight the other remarkable aspects of Canadian history. The 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation is almost here and its preparations are lagging. Mr Harper and his Heritage minister, Shelly Glover, seem unable to give the celebration a clear focus. There is room for concern that once again, they will be content with showcasing Canada's military feats and refuse to acknowledge everything else that has made our nation a source of hope and envy in the world.
In the social context of Canada before the Quiet Revolution (1950s), before Viola Desmond's act of defiance (1946), before Rosa Parks triggered the United States' Civil Rights Movement (1955), Fred Christie stood up to institutional discrimination. A decade before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1947), Fred Christie exhibited unimaginable courage and perseverance in asserting his civil rights. Though the judicial process did not deliver the desired result, Fred Christie remains a key instigator in Canada's journey towards the establishment of universal rights.
When I see the photo of the Sikhs on the decks of the Komagata Maru, I think of the ones trying so desperately to pry that door open on land. The ones who raised money that they did not have for legal fees, and who rowed out to feed the men aboard with food they scarcely earned. Their story, and reasons for helping those barred from entry is as old as our nation itself.
Sir John A. Macdonald was also a racist who disdained Chinese rail workers, the very same men who helped build his national dream, by imposing a discriminatory head tax on each of them. And it was Macdonald whose policies of forced starvation helped clear First Nations from the prairies in order to build that railway. Indeed, James Daschuk from the University of Regina argues quite cogently in his book Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation and the Loss of Aboriginal Life that Macdonald's starvation policies led to the deaths of thousands.
In the orgy of celebration of the War of 1812, the true legacy of Shawnee warrior Tecumseh has been badly (and perhaps, conveniently) miscast. Far from being ignored, he is now being appropriated by white society and cast as a "good Indian" - brave, heroic, co-operative, and at the ready to do the bidding of his British brethren. He is being placed aside Issac Brock, and the Canadian militia as the great defenders of Canada. His historical role has been reduced to Laura Secord with a feather. A more thorough reading of Tecumseh's life and influence tells a very different story.
Québec's credo is "Je me souviens", which loosely translates to "I will remember". But there is never a bad time to appropriate this mantra in the rest of Canada, to understand where we've come from and appreciate how far we've come as the world's first nation to adopt a federal multiculturalism policy. To that end, here are some low-lights of Canadian history.
Here's the hard truth: no one puts down Canadians with quite as much glee as Canadians themselves. This can range from Canadians who think they are being charmingly self-deprecating to conservatives who hate Canada for not being more American. Plus Canadians in one part of the country love to put down Canadians in other parts (and then use the inevitable backlash as a justification for their initial prejudice).
Are race relations in Canada so much further advanced than in the US that the Trayvon Martin tragedy would never happen here? I'm not so sure. As troubling as it is to face, the Canadian version of the Zimmerman-Martin horror would actually look something like the following scenario: Zimmerman is a South-Asian or Asian male. Trayvon is an Indigenous teen girl who was simply walking to her home in one of Canada's upper-middle-class suburban neighbourhoods. She is brutalized and dumped on the side of the road afterwards. And the Canadian public doesn't bat an eye.
This noxious obsession with one-upping America at every turn, even (especially?) when it requires rewriting history to reimagine America's good ideas as bad ones, and Canada's bad ones as heroic, is the complete antithesis of modesty, or even decency. It's obnoxious, ugly, and dishonest, and certainly not the stuff from which great patriotism is made.
On June 1st 1866, a determined group of Civil War veterans boarded barges from Buffalo, crossed the Niagara River, and invaded Canada. The battle was small, as it lasted two days, and only saw 15 battleground deaths. It was plagued by inexperience, misunderstandings, screw ups, and failure on the Canadians' parts. But it shaped our nation.
Canada is a superb creation and initial credit for that must, obviously, go to Canada's founding fathers. How we came about is a fascinating tale of seemingly intractable regional disputes resolved, at least for a time, by new institutions and a new country. Thus, today, inter-provincial debates are similar to pre-1867 tussles where one province's citizens complain of how others are on the federal dole courtesy of tax dollars from the more prosperous regions. And all the provinces again regularly press the federal government for more money.
To be Canadian is to always feel just a little different than the cool kids. How can we compete when every one of us is an immigrant, or descendant of immigrants, and the mix of who we are changes constantly? Maybe we're asking the wrong question. If we took a closer look, we might find that we're cooler than we realize. Canadians have a unique relationship with our history. We're proud of the country we built, but ashamed of the steps we took to get here. For many of us, the easiest solution is to try not to look back at all. But when we don't know our history, we don't just miss out on a dusty old past. It makes it hard to imagine our future.
Why is it that in 2013, Canadians and foreigners alike still believe we are the Great White-(Only) North? Canada is boxed into a stereotype of snow, lumberjacks and igloos. No wonder foreigners think we're so boring! When I travel abroad, no one ever guesses I am as Canadian as poutine and beavertails.
These days, one landing on D'Arcy Island is likely to be a kayaker enjoying its remote beauty. But 122 years ago, that haven must have been desperately lonely, isolating, and even terrifying for those immigrant lepers just shuttled off and left to quietly live a life of struggle, or quietly die as they please.
As the fog around black Canadian history dissipates, a clearer picture emerges: there is no need to revert to African-American historical heroes because we have our own crusaders. Black Canadians pioneered B.C.'s very foundation, and they still contribute to the cultural fabric of the province to this day.
As recently as 2009, Canadian Tourism Commission spokesperson conceded that "Canada has had a kind of vanilla pudding image -- safe and nice, like the girl next door -- not the hot chick you'd want to go on vacation with." In other words, we're perceived as "uninteresting." Will the Museum of Canadian History change that? The Americans think they have the monopoly on those adjectives when it comes to their country's history. They don't. A Canadian History Museum can showcase the contribution of people who fall outside the dreary stereotypes and repetitive platitudes.
This story is written in honour and recognition of a Canadian hero: Canada's first black university graduate and our country's first black lawyer, Robert Sutherland (1830-1878). Today, Mr. Robert Sutherland's legacy lives on through a memorial room at Queen's University and scholarships established in his name.