It seems every so often in the histories of these collective identities we refer to as nations comes a turning point — a cultural decision on how the nation responds to a challenge which defines the overall character and distinctiveness of the culture.
Britain’s was its stubborn, unflinching resistance against the Axis powers in the Second World War. France and Russia’s defining moments came when they concluded the nobility did not have a mandate from heaven to rule them.
And Canada has reached its crossroads with the unearthing of the ever-increasing number of children who were murdered by the residential school system.
When you boil it down to its base elements, “Canada” is an idea we all share. And public debate that has arisen since the first mass grave was confirmed has revealed two very different ideas of what Canada is.
Our traditional image of ourselves is of a predominantly white and Christian nation, the fruit of Imperial Britain which achieved independence not through violence, but through the diplomatic efforts of savvy businessmen.
Proponents of this view defend the symbolism of John A. MacDonald as Canada’s founder and say that should be kept separate from what he did as Canada’s prime minister. They argue that we can’t judge people through our modern lens because the world-view was different.
This logic is falling on deaf ears for the descendants of his victims and their supporters, of which there appear to be many. I’m not a victim of Canada’s genocide, but I cannot look a John A. MacDonald’s portrait without thinking of the children who died at the end of his pen.
For people still recovering from colonialism, the idea of Canada is very, very different. It is of a group of sailors who were invited into people’s homes as guests and even shown how to treat diseases like scurvy. These guests then returned — uninvited — and constructed their own homes in people’s backyards. They introduced social diseases like alcohol to people’s children and gave them blankets infected with real diseases like smallpox. They wrote up contracts and military alliances with people they had no intention of honouring. Then, when these guests had finally subjugated the First Nations of Turtle Island, that’s when the real nightmares began.
Canadians who take great pride in our politeness and support of human rights are clearly uncomfortable with this, which is why it has taken this long for us to begin to deal with it.
But the spirits of these children could not be buried. Residential school survivors have told us for decades they were there and now there is no denying it.
So this Canada Day we must all reflect on what Canada means to us. If we are the nation we want to believe we are, we will give these children the justice they deserve. If we’re just another empire, then we won’t.
Whichever path we pick will determine the rest of our future.