I remember Expo 67. I was five years old, and my parents put me on a leash so that I would not get lost amidst the crowds of people who gathered on Île Sainte-Hélène. I remember seeing some innovative movies – which later influenced the creation of IMAX. I remember the monorail. I remember the Canada Pavilion, and upside down pyramid whose interior was decorated with various sculptures. I remember the Metro, my first experience of a subway system. It was all in celebration of 100th year of confederation, and it was a Very Big Thing.
Along with Expo there were other things. In the garden in behind our house on 3rd Avenue in Geand-Mere Quebec one of my brothers grew a garden in the form of the centennial maple leaf. My family went to Prince Edward Island for a vacation and there were Confederation displays there. I remember listening and singing along to Bobbie Jimby’s “Canada – We Love You”.
It feel different for our sesquicentennial. Maybe I am just older. Then again, 150 years isn’t as evocative a number as 100. In a year that ends in a 50 there’s a feeling that we are half-way to something. A fifty year old celebrating a birthday is a middle-aged person, neither young or old. A centenarian is beyond the experience of most folk. So I approach the Canada 150 celebrations with less enthusiasm.
But part of it is also that the country has changed in the past 50 years. Our national story is no longer one of biculturalism and bilingualism, but one of immigration and multiculturalism, a policy that since 1982 has been enshrined in our constitution. Underlying that story is a parallel one of 500 years of colonialism by the French and British empires. The colonists took the land from the indigenous peoples by violence, was indifferent to major epidemics among the Inuit, Metis, and First Nations, confined them to marginal reserves, and sought to assimilate the survivors through the Indian Residential Schools. Many indigenous peoples and their allies are ambivalent about Canada 150 because much of the past century and a half represents a stage in the attempt to eradicate “the Indian problem forever.” While the past fifty years have also seen the recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples, and the reclaiming of their traditions and lands, this has been slow coming, compelled by court cases and the testimony of injustice.
The indigenous peoples have been here since “time immemorial”. Archaeologists suggest that the ancestors of the First Nations of British Columbia came to these shores somewhere between 14,000 and 20,000 years ago, and probably earlier. In all likelihood there were waves of migration, the most recent being the ancestors of the Inuit over 1000 years ago. In contrast my ancestors came to Canada East and New Brunswick about 180 years ago, and I only arrived in British Columbia in 1995.
Sea level was 100 metres lower 15,000 years ago, and so it is difficult to find sites of human habitation from that long ago in what is now the province of British Columbia. One site off the shore of Haida Gwaii has been dated to 13,800 before present, and a Heiltsuk village site has been dated to 14,000 years ago.
Let’s put this in perspective. This village is three times older than the pyramids. Great Britain and Ireland, from whence my people came, was not to be settled for another 5000 years. The roots of the Haida, the Heitsuk, the Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw, Nuu-chah-nulth, and Coast Salish are deep in this land.
So, perhaps as we approach Canada 150, and give thanks for living in Canada, we can also celebrate Canada 15000. As Canada Day comes let us honour our nation by committing ourselves to a process of decolonization.