#CancelCanadaDay won’t fix it: Every Canadian is a product of systemic racism that is 'swept under the rug,' experts say

·6-min read
Hole cut in the flag of Canada, white background, 3d rendering

This Canada Day isn't like the others.

Massive calls to cancel the holiday have been amplified by the desire to expose the country's two faces: a longstanding history of racism, discrimination and genocide that is often hidden behind a reputation of multiculturalism and inclusion.

Dr. Ajay Parasram, assistant professor with the Department of International Development Studies and Department of History at Dalhousie University, stressed to Yahoo Canada that Canadians are a product of the systemic racism in the country, rooted into policy and structures of Canada.

"We're all the products of the institutions that have produced us, whether it's the school or the prison or the university or the newsroom," Parasram said. 

"We need to do the deep work of thinking OK, if there's a problem of anti-Black racism and anti-Indigenous racism in this country...where are the institutions that need to be transformed?"Dr. Ajay Parasam, Assistant Professor, Department of International Studies and History, Dalhousie University

"Nowhere in Canadian society is safe from the need to engage in this process of institutional decolonization and it means a lot more than just a word or a feeling, it's the actual hard work of having to sit down and figure out over a long period of time, how do we do our work differently.”

How did we get here? Why Indigenous history is often ignored in school

The recent discovery of unmarked graves at residential schools has left many Canadians frustrated that the current school system didn't educate them enough on the history of Indigenous people in Canada and the generations of abuse experienced by their communities.

Dr. Tracy Bear, director of the McMaster Indigenous Research Institute (MIRI) and academic lead of "Indigenous Canada," a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) developed to help Canadians understand the history of Indigenous people, has noticed that this subject matter has been "glossed over" in schools because it is uncomfortable for teachers to talk about.

"When you are uncomfortable with something or awkward in it, that's not something you're going to delve into with great enthusiasm, especially given the topic matter," Bear said.

I think the Indigenous people and the history of Canada...it is incredibly awkward and incredibly uncomfortable, especially when you have teachers who are trying to be allies, or trying to do the right thing, but they just don't feel like they have the voice or the resources.Tracy Bear, Director of McMaster Indigenous Research Institute

She shared that when learners finish the "Indigenous Canada" course, many feel disbelief, anger, confusion, shame and complicity.

"Where are you located? What treaty area are you living in? What Indigenous people are in your specific area? Start reaching out and learning," Bear said. "But don't put the onus on Indigenous people in that area."

While holes in the education system around Indigenous history are present, Bear also agrees that Canadians have turned a "blind eye" their country’s history and the issues that still exist today.

"I like to say that you take that red pill from The Matrix when you wake up from that reality that is the Matrix, or you can remain blissfully ignorant," she explained. "It's really tempting to take the blue pill, you have those good feelings, you have those good emotions, and you're comfortable that your ancestors were the winners in this race civilization, and you remain happily ignorant about the disregard for treaties and the decimation of Indigenous populations."

"What I think Indigenous people want is for others to take that red pill, face those uncomfortable truths and yeah, you're gonna feel disbelief, anger, guilt and shame, but also you're confronted with your privilege… True reconciliation and truth giving requires social action, courage, and a lot of humility."Tracy Bear, Director of McMaster Indigenous Research Institute

While some believe Canadians are starting to face our discriminatory culture, particularly after the targeted Islamophobic hate crime in London, Ont. and the discovery of unmarked graves at residential schools, there is also the argument that these realities should have been addressed earlier.

"Colonialism and racism is shape shifting," Parasram said. "What gives it power is the fact that it can present itself as simply being normal...and it allows the Canadian nation to kind of constantly resuscitate itself and say, actually we're the good guys."

"I think we also need to specifically engage in a process of reparations for slavery in this country to deal with that level of racism...that Canada has constantly swept under the rug."

Looking at Canada Day in particular, Bear described herself as "ambivalent" to the holiday but shared that this year she will be wrapping her trees in and wearing orange, stressing the importance that one day of reflecting and acknowledging Indigenous history is not enough.

"It can't just be one day," she said. "It really takes a prolonged push and I don't think we've hit the tipping point in Canadian society where we really think Indigenous issues are a priority."

"There needs to be ongoing efforts by everyone, not just the federal and provincial governments, but also larger organizations in Canada that have a say in what our social, cultural, environment is… Have those awkward conversations about that so that we can feel proud of our country and when Canada Day does come around, you'll see Indigenous people and everyone embracing it, rather than pushing back against this."Tracy Bear, Director of McMaster Indigenous Research Institute

Why 'Cancel Canada Day' is different

Canada Day controversies are not new as Dr. Matthew Hayday, a history professor at the University of Guelph who studies the political and cultural history of post-war Canada, highlighted to Yahoo Canada. That controversy was built in from the beginning. Marking the anniversary of Confederation in 1867, the initial attempt to make it a public holiday failed because Nova Scotia MPs objected to it, feeling like their province had been forced into Confederation.

Hayday also highlighted that in British Columbia in the 1920s, Chinese-Canadians objected to celebrating then Dominion Day because July 1, 1923 is when the Chinese Immigration Act came into effect, which effectively banned Chinese immigration to Canada. Community leaders organized events for what they were calling "Humiliation Day" in an effort to put pressure on provincial and federal governments to reverse the legislation.

“Throughout the history of the day, there has been contention and controversy and varying degrees of how extensively it's funded,” Hayday said.

He added that Canada Day was effectively cancelled before, referring to the federal government’s lack of celebration in 1976 as a budget cutting measure. In that year, the Canadian government eliminated funding for everything except presentation of the citizenship certificates by the prime minister. The following year, after the Parti Québécois were elected for the first time and separatism became a threat, millions of dollars were put toward the celebration.

"The scale of the events really can turn on a dime, depending on the political context and the political motivations, of the government," Hayday said.

In terms of what stands out about this year’s Canada Day controversy, Hayday said the explicit use of the term “cancel” is most significant.

"There certainly have been objections to celebrations in the past or calls for reframing, but calls for out-and-out cancellation, I think are somewhat new and related to certain aspects of the current political discourse," he said. "[The] confirmations of the numbers of deaths of residential schools in such close proximity to July the first is also creating a very distinctive context for this."

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