Note: this essay was written in advance of Canada's 150th celebration in 2017.
I won’t be attending Canada’s 150th birthday party.
What are we celebrating exactly?
I’m actually kinda offended anyone would attend the birthday party. Celebrating Canada’s 150th birthday without taking a moment to reflect on the fact that it has been an overwhelmingly violent 150 years for Indigenous peoples in Canada isn’t just insensitive, it’s offensive.
"The strength of Canada’s economy has allowed Joe Canadian to drive a big truck with big wheels so they can go fast through big mud puddles on colonization roads across Canada."
Let’s slow things down a bit and say: Canadians love Canada, a lot. Canadians love Canada so much that the title of this essay will make some not even bother to read it. Some will call me anti-Canadian. Some will leave comments about the CBC running “Indian Propaganda” against its citizens. In 2014, when I recorded my last comedy special Red Man Laughing for CBC, there were death threats left on the Edmonton Journal website when they ran a story of our sold out first night. This is the Canada I know well in the context of my work.
A little more than 150 years ago, Canada built 1,600 km of "colonization roads" to make it easier for settlers to claim territory off of the side of these roads. So, naturally, when asked to make a film that would shine an Indigenous focused light on the colonization road system that settled Canada — I jumped at it.
Firsthand documentary, Colonization Road
"We have far to go when it comes to giving Indigenous peoples a say over their lives, their communities, their territories and their nations."
Making this film, unpacking the policies and comparing them to the status quo of today, I realized that colonialism is not just a thing of the past — it is ongoing. This country was founded by coercing, sometimes violently so, Indigenous peoples off of their territories to provide access to the rich natural resources that would form this country’s economy. Through time, the strength of Canada’s economy has allowed Joe Canadian to drive a big truck with big wheels so they can go fast through big mud puddles on colonization roads across Canada. Through time, the strength of Canada’s economy has also killed Indigenous peoples.
So what are we celebrating exactly?
We never have — and still don’t — treat Indigenous people fairly. There are too many cases where provincial and federal governments delay and ignore land issues that are destroying our health and well-being. In Grassy Narrows, their water has been poisoned with mercury for more than 50 years. Governments bicker over adding a road to Shoal Lake 40 First Nation, cut off more than 100 years ago during the construction of Winnipeg’s water system. The BC government continues to ignore the calls of the Treaty 8 First Nations to stop Site C Dam which will wipe out their land — again. We have far to go when it comes to giving Indigenous peoples a say over their lives, their communities, their territories and their nations.
The rate of Indigenous youth dying by their own hands is several times the national average. An estimated 4,000 Indigenous women and girls are murdered and missing. Gone forever.
If we can all show up for fireworks, hot dogs and face paint to celebrate a birthday, why can’t we show up in times of deep need faced by Indigenous peoples?
So what are we celebrating exactly?
"I think every person in this country should look in the mirror and ask themselves what they can do to build a better Canada."
This isn’t an indictment of ordinary Canadians. It’s a call for Canadians to demand action by our governments to make our country better for all that live in it. It is a call to those that want us to “get over it” to engage in the massive re-education for themselves and their families.
This is a call to change this country forever.
I think every person in this country should look in the mirror and ask themselves what they can do to build a better Canada.
Canada’s 150th offers us a chance to look ahead 150 years from now. That’s where my focus will be. I’m not going to the birthday party, I have work to do. I’m building toward 2167.
Ryan McMahon is an Anishinaabe comedian, writer, media maker and community activator living in Winnipeg. Visit him online.