An Open Letter by Roshni Khemraj and Rebecca Denyer, and inspired by Ana Oliveira.
Disclaimer: This letter is solely a reflection of the views of the authors. While we are respectively the President and Vice-President of Amnesty International at York (2017/18), we acknowledge the diversity of opinions within the organization at an international, national and local level and do not intend to speak on behalf of the organization as a whole. We are defenders of human rights and we seek to realize our goal to expose and educate on abuses of those rights through this piece.
Amidst the crackle of fireworks and the patriotic waving of red maple leaf flags, this long weekend, a group of people across the nation will inevitably be left out of the ‘celebration’. But then again, that’s nothing new, is it? Time and time again, in the “150 years” of Canada and before, Indigenous peoples have consistently been left out – left out of decision-making, the right to autonomy, out of news outlets when thousands of women and girls go missing, and most importantly left out of their rightful land.
So what are we really celebrating when we say “Happy 150th Birthday Canada”? What can we celebrate about a history only made possible by displacement and genocide?
Canada’s “birthday” is founded on the blood and violence directed at the Indigenous peoples of Canada. The very foundation of Canada as a nation is characterized by residential schools, the theft of Indigenous land, mass murder and continued marginalization and discrimination in all spheres of society. Yet, this July 1st, this violent history can go blissfully ignored by millions of people from Vancouver to St.John’s as the government of Canada throws millions of dollars into celebrating the birthday of a “diverse”, “peaceful” and “harmonious” nation.
So again, we ask ourselves, what are we really celebrating?
Being two young women who are pursuing university degrees, we recognize the privilege we have in our circumstances – growing up with access to clean water, education, health care and without the threat of war. We also recognize that many of these privileges are granted to us primarily because of where we are geographically located – Canada. So, one may ask us – isn’t that what you’re celebrating? The privileges, freedoms and rights you get from Canada being your home?
And for so many people, this is what’s being celebrated. What’s celebrated is the nation that is full of promise, that is a refuge from war, that is an opportunity to be educated, that is a new beginning. But as valid as that picture of Canada may be to the realities of so many people, the reality of Canada being the nation of stolen land and crisis for Indigenous peoples must also be widely validated.
This July 1st, after 150 years of historical genocide and exclusion of Indigenous rights, it is vital to shift the discourse from just “celebration” of a welcoming home to including reconciliation as well. How do we, as a society that occupies and benefits from stolen land, address the colonial practice of Canada Day and move towards a time of reconciliation?
The sole answer isn’t in government-funded celebrations of Indigenous art, dance and theatre that seek to create the illusion of inclusion as a theme for “Canada 150” events. It must be grounded in specific and measurable steps taken to address the rampant poverty, over-incarceration, high suicide rates, police abuse, sub-standard housing and lack of access to clean water that exist for Indigenous peoples in Canada.
Amnesty International at York remains committed to the reconciliation process for Indigenous peoples. We condemn the actions of the Canadian government in the breaking of treaties through actions such as Site C Dam, the marginalization of Inuit lives through mercury exposure and the continued epidemic of the murdered and missing Indigenous women. We will continue to raise awareness and create movements to shed light on the injustices committed in our nation that has ironically and paradoxically been termed our “home and native land”.
This process of education and communication is key in the fight against human rights violations everywhere. Unlike the innocent and serene picture that is painted of this country on the world stage, Canada is not yet a nation of peace and diversity and is by no means free of human rights abuses. To this day, the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island continue to be marginalized and exploited by settlers on their land.
2017 marks the 40th anniversary of the Canadian Human Rights Act and the 35th anniversary of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Let this be the year that the government of Canada finally honours their commitment to human rights. Let this be the year that justice and respect is granted for Indigenous peoples. If Canada truly is a country of peace, then we must all move towards reconciliation, true love and togetherness.