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The Canada 150 and colonial legacies: views from the university

Campus celebrations should make us reflect on the past 150 years, for better and worse.

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As Canada prepares to celebrate its sesquicentennial year, it seems that the fervor of national pride has also reached the university. Simon Fraser University has put forth a number of specially curated courses and invited the community to experience Canada 150 from its campuses.

We are often told that Canada has much to celebrate. A century and a half after confederation, the draw of freedom and respect for differences makes this ‘nation’ unique in the world. Yet we need not look far to see the hypocrisy of the Canadian identity.

There are very fundamental problems that undermine the Canadian state, ones built on colonialism and, in the case of a large portion of the country, its continued existence on unceded Indigenous territory. Moreover, there are a myriad of instances that undermine those values of cultural diversity and acceptance that we are told underpin the nation.

With this in mind, I spoke to some members of the SFU community who shared their insights on the 150th anniversary and its significance at the university.

Neglecting history

Maddi* is a First Nation student majoring in gender, sexuality, and women’s studies (GSWS). This semester, she was part of a team that gathered perspectives of Indigenous students on the Canada 150 for the publication of this month’s Indigenous Alternative Media zine. She said that most of the students whom she interviewed felt strongly that the anniversary celebration “was neglecting the history of First Nation people and it was capsulating Canada into 150 years.”

For these reasons, Maddi explained, she felt that there were problems with the university — and the country — marking an occasion which comes on the heels of 150 years of colonialism.

“This is a brand-new wound and we are still healing,” Maddi noted. She also expressed that the university had a long way to go to make her, and other Indigenous students, feel comfortable. It’s the little things such as following protocol during territorial acknowledgements at events — seeking a proper welcome to the land — that make a difference, she said.

This sentiment was echoed by another member of the zine team, Matt*, a First Nation student in communications. The university in many ways still carries the baggage of the country’s colonial past. Its namesake, after a prominent explorer and settler on the local territory, Simon Fraser, and scenes portrayed in the large mural  overhanging the AQ north concourse are in many ways tied to the anniversary that the Canada is celebrating.  

“I think that’s what is missing is people don’t understand what they’re celebrating,” Matt said. “They’re willing to celebrate colonialism.

“It has never been easy for an Indigenous person to strive in this society [and] I’m not going to be celebrating anything about that.”

Both of the students identified themselves as First Nation, not Canadian.

Mixed feelings

The perspectives held by the community at SFU seem to be understandably mixed, according to William Lindsay, director of the SFU Office for Aboriginal Peoples.

“We’re celebrating Canada’s 150th year as a country and I would say that for most of those 150 years, the Aboriginal peoples of this country have faced colonialism, colonization, discrimination, [and] racism,” he said.  

“Especially since 1867, there has been a tremendous amount of colonization happening in this country and it has just been turning around this last short while. When it started is debatable, but it has been a constant effort on the part of Aboriginal peoples to change their situation for the better in this country.

“There are a lot of things that people need to become aware of in mainstream Canada,” he noted. The legacy of colonialism is still very much present today, from the enduring Indian Act, first established in 1876, to the reserve system, residential schools, and the denial of Indigenous rights and titles. These, said Lindsay, are only some of the concerns on Indigenous peoples’ minds.

It was only last year that Canada fully adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Eight years earlier, the Conservative government objected to the clause requiring that officials obtain the consent of Indigenous peoples wherever matters concerned them.

Lindsay noted that if he was asked to share his thoughts on the 150th anniversary as a whole, he would mention those things pertinent to Indigenous peoples before he would mention any of the celebratory things for Canada.

“If I was asked as a representative of this university to attend a public event, invited by the government of Canada to come and celebrate Canada’s 150 years, I’d have to give some thought if I’d do it. Others might [attend], but some of us wouldn’t,” he said.

Six blow out candles

The multiculturalism myth

        At least on the exterior, Canada’s official stance of multiculturalism presumes that the country has accepted cultural difference into its mainstream narrative and entered a new era. However, the history of discrimination against various immigrant and Indigenous peoples continues to erode Canada’s claim to a multicultural identity.

        Am Johal, the director of SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement, felt that Canadian multiculturalism was a kind of “nationalist stereotype” that needs to be looked at critically in terms of day-to-day lived experiences.

        “When we are talking about it in the context of the 150th anniversary of Canada, I think that national narratives have historically left out certain views and perspectives and experiences of what being Canadian is, from Indigenous perspectives to the experiences of Chinese railroad workers,” Johal explained. “We need to look in a much more complicated way at multiculturalism because it tends to paint a rosy picture between and amongst immigrant communities, minority communities, [and] the dominant culture.”

        Subtler in its contradiction to the multiculturalism narrative is the profound view of colonial values as the default, while all others are viewed as part of the cultural mosaic of an accepting nation.

        Maisaloon Al-Ashkar is a third-year student in First Nations studies and GSWS who is part of the Racialized Resistance and Healing Action Group on campus. She also shared her perspective on what multiculturalism means in Canada’s 150th year.

        “I see the colonial state of Canada using the ‘multiculturalism’ myth to portray itself as a welcoming white savior,” she said. “It employs tokenistic ‘diversity’ to Other immigrant bodies,” she said.

        “As a Muslim woman and displaced Palestinian, my identities are systematically attacked by the state,” she continued. “This also intersects with the reality that I am a racialized settler complicit in the ongoing dispossession of Indigenous peoples and lands.”

A way forward?

In light of the problems in Canada’s national narrative, the question remains as to what the university and the country should do during a year marking a (supposedly) large milestone. The inclusion of Indigenous peoples in any events on campus is the least that should be done, Matt noted. However, the changes must be much more expansive than that.

“I think having more indigenous voices brought forward in general is necessary, as an organizing voice, not a tokenized voice,” said Maddi. “[To] stop stigmatizing Indigenous people and just bring some into organizing [and] allow people to be informed.”

Johal explained: “I think the colonial context of Canada has had a profound amnesia over its past.

“More work needs to be done particularly around having a historical narrative of Canada that places Indigenous peoples at the center of it.”

Nationally, Lindsay viewed the country as having made progress in some areas compared to the past. Yet the consultation of Indigenous peoples remains largely unfulfilled on a governmental level. As for the university, Lindsay wished that the progress he sees here continues.  

“I hope that those who are going to put on the 150th anniversary celebrations here, I hope there is an acknowledgement of the Aboriginal peoples of this country as a part of it,” he said. “I don’t expect them to go into the dark history, but an acknowledgement that the First Peoples are an important part of this country, they always have been and always will be.”

Thus far, the faculty of arts and social sciences at SFU has rolled out a semesterly line-up of public talks and courses to mark the ‘national’ 150th  in the university setting. More initiatives are expected to be announced as the year progresses.

*Full names were not published at the request of the interviewee

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