Today in Victoria, thousands of people will gather downtown to participate in Canada Day activities. There will be free concerts, a “living Canadian flag,” and fireworks at the end of the day. We Canadians spend a lot of time distinguishing ourselves from our neighbours to the south, particularly on how we express our patriotism, but attend a Canada Day celebration anywhere in the country and you’ll see that nationalism is alive and well in the true North strong and free.
Canada Day gives me pause. I see that there are reasons to celebrate Canada and being Canadian, but I also think we can be blinded by our true patriot love when there is so much here that is not right.
I do think of Canada with a glowing heart when I consider what it could be like to live in constant fear for my own safety and freedom. This can be a place of new opportunity and new beginnings for people, and I remember this when I think of friends who have come to Canada as resettled refugees. One friend, who is originally from South Sudan, wrote, “If I’m asked where I want to resettle and study, I would choose Canada over and over again. Canada has amazing people, amazing opportunities, amazing nature.”
I often think of a dinner at my house with a multicultural group when we went around the circle so that each person could share something they loved about Victoria. At first it was predictable: the weather, the ocean, the nice people. But the last one to speak was a student who had recently arrived in Canada from a refugee camp in Thailand. “When I was in the camp, I heard the word ‘freedom’ but did not know what it means,” she said. “Here, I know it.”
When I compare the systems of Canada that sometimes frustrate us so much to the systems of some other places in the world—including Malawi, where I spent three months—I realize that perspective is important. However frustrating I may find Stephen Harper, for example, he is not in fact a dictator; there is a democratic system in place that does exert checks on his power (even if he has worked to eroded them). And however much I do not like our former immigration minister with his heated rhetoric, Jason Kenney, he is still no Marine Le Pen.
For these reasons, I am thankful to live here; it is indeed easy to see it as our land, glorious and free. But I know that my Canada—one where I can trust the police, where I don’t experience racism, where my voice is heard and my culture is respected, and where I have adequate access to services and resources—is not everyone’s Canada. There is so much more to Canada than the sanitized “official story” that is celebrated on Canada Day. Powerful people shape and define that official story, but whose voices aren’t heard when we are talking about Canada and Canadian identity?
What about our home on Native land—this country’s deeply messed-up relationship with Indigenous peoples? There are many groups across Turtle Island who do not regard the Canadian state as legitimate since it has not honoured treaties with or has simply taken land from its original inhabitants.
What about the racist and exclusionary history on which this country is built? That history includes the Komagata Maru incident, the exploitation of Chinese railroad workers and the Chinese Exclusion Act, and the recent furor over low-skilled temporary foreign workers, most of whom are people of colour.
What about the level of inequality and inadequacy of social services that is apparent every time I pass a homeless person on the street when I am walking to work?
I am a Canadian, but my loyalty to this country and my citizenship is not unqualified or undying. I am loyal to the idea that Canada has the potential to do things right. I believe that my country can someday be a just and equal society. Until that is the case, however, I won’t stop questioning or being critical.
“Can’t you just take this one day to celebrate the good things?” I can hear my mother say to me. To me, having conversations about how we can make Canada better is part of celebrating. One of the things that I love most about my country is that I can challenge it without fear—and in fact, I consider it a responsibility of my citizenship to be critical of the official story and of unwavering nationalism. O Canada, writing this is how I stand on guard for thee.