Opinion

Canada can't look away after 2017. We won't let it.

It is certain that the story of Canada will change after this year, says Jesse Wente. The only question: will we move forward with fear or courage?

‘As exhausting as this year has been, it has not been in vain.’

It is certain that the story of Canada will change after this year, says Jesse Wente. The only question: will we move forward with fear or courage? (Emma Day)

I recently sat with a trusted colleague. We discussed what we were up to, and how we were. The usual chit chat. I said, "You know, this year has just been … "

I didn't need to finish the sentence. She immediately knew what I meant and nodded.

I've had this same conversation many times this year, and that sentence has never needed to be finished for those who have been paying attention.

Resistance reframed

Whatever one might have expected out of Canada's sesquicentennial year, it's hard to imagine anyone predicting what it has become, and the resonance it will have in the future.

The wearying toll that 2017 has had on the First Nations, Métis and Inuit people I talk to is unlikely to drain away with the champagne at midnight on December 31.

The timing was ripe for Canada's sesquicentennial to meet vocal resistance, its message recast, its meaning reframed.

While any celebration of a colonial anniversary has spent some 500 years earning disdain from Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island, mainstream narratives reframe our political and physical oppression, making it more palatable for future generations. This selective storytelling also has the effect of numbing the wider public — to the point that our disdain still surprises some people.

But the timing was ripe for Canada's sesquicentennial to meet vocal resistance, its message recast, its meaning reframed. This resistance was foreshadowed by Idle No More, the election of a government promising a renewed relationship with Indigenous peoples, the final report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and an expanding Indigenous media presence.

What this will mean for the future remains to be seen. What it means in the present is a renewed debate about Canadian national identity.

Crashing the party

The last time Canada celebrated a major birthday there was similar outrage, perhaps best remembered in Chief Dan George's searing Lament for Confederation delivered at Expo '67.

The Indigenous actor makes a powerful statement during Canada's Centennial. 7:17

The ensuing fifty years have not erased the sentiments Chief George expressed that day, indeed they are perhaps more firmly held and more easily spread thanks to the prevalence of social media and a renewed activist community connected by digital means.

Activists, community leaders, and storytellers have called out the lack of movement on systemic and urgent issues — such as clean water, suicide and the underfunding of Indigenous children in their communities.

Artists have refashioned the meaning of the sesquicentennial, disrupting the celebration at every turn, advancing the national dialogue even as that dialogue is steeped in the same antiquated ideas that bubble to the surface during moments of colonial anxiety.

Witness the appropriation prize controversy as an example, or the debate that arose over the naming of monuments or schools. Many were quick to defend colonial history, tying themselves in rhetorical knots to protect cultural systems that erase and dehumanize, all in the name of free expression. Meanwhile, the same people have conveniently ignored that free expression has rarely been free for Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island.

Indeed, the cost can be severe.

Speaking truth

With everything that has been written spoken and demonstrated in 2017, Wente believes it will be impossible for Canadians to ignore how Indigenous people are treated. (Emma Day)

Time and time again this year, more than any year I can remember recently, First Nations, Métis and Inuit people have been forced to defend their right to exist at all, let alone their creativity or stories.

This is a stark reminder of the meaning of the sesquicentennial for Indigenous peoples, a message that one can only hope has reached many beyond our communities. Indeed there is reason to believe that it has.

While comment sections and Twitter at times suggest otherwise, the election of the Trudeau government was a bellwether for a shift within many Canadians. They have heard the voices that have been so often muted, if not silenced, previously.

The path to conciliation (reconciliation implies that we are repairing a once fair relationship) is still fraught with much misunderstanding and much fear. But many still yearn for action, even as the government struggles to live up to its promises.

While the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples of 20 years ago was largely ignored, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's report has found a more receptive audience, even if so many pundits who haven't read it still feel comfortable pronouncing on it.

The truth spoken by those who testified before the commission has unleashed further truth telling and, after this year, it may well be impossible for Canada to look away again. We won't let it.

Change should not be feared

"Future birthdays are already altered," says Jesse Wente. "It is certain that the story of Canada will change after this year." (Emma Day)

Slowly, the change has crept into the storytelling systems that will help reshape the national narrative for the next birthday.

Commitments by cultural institutions such as the NFB, CBC, Telefilm and the CMF to fund Indigenous content should bring more Indigenous-made stories to the wider public. The massive change at the Canada Council for the Arts, as well as its recent re-enforcement of its stance on cultural appropriation, will further recast creativity in Canada for years to come.

All while First Nations, Métis and Inuit creators have reached new heights of power and productivity.

There is no going back without further exposing the false narratives that formed the creation myth of Canada.

The inevitability of coming change is often obscured by the constant need to redress out-of-date arguments and ideas. Fear of that change encourages the silencing of those working to enact it.

But make no mistake, Indigenous voices have already changed the dialogue, and there is no going back without further exposing the false narratives that formed the creation myth of Canada.

Future birthdays are already altered, if they will occur at all, and it is certain that the story of Canada will change after this year.

Change should not be feared but embraced as part of a young nation maturing and finding its identity while measuring itself against the ideals it extols.

As exhausting as this year has been, it has not been in vain. Our ancestors honoured us with their lives, as we must now honour them. They never wanted us to fear, and we should not, for our future relations will benefit from our refusal to be afraid.

I will see Canada's next birthday through the eyes of my children and their children. I already know it will be very different and that a very different story will be told.  

There is nothing to fear in that.

About the Author

Jesse Wente

Jesse Wente has appeared on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning as film and pop culture critic for 20 years. He previously served as Director of Film Programmes, at TIFF Bell Lightbox, where he oversaw theatrical, Cinematheque and Film Circuit programming. Wente is a self-described ‘Ojibwe dude’ with a national and international lens.

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