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As we come together to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday, it is fitting that we take the time to reflect on what does it mean to be Canadian past and present.
Not so long ago when we asked people what being a Canadian meant, often we heard some generalization of what it does not mean. “Canadians are not American or British; we are not Australians or any other former British colonies.” Do we only discover national identity when we travel abroad and find ourselves craving for a cup of Tim Horton coffee? What does it really mean to be Canadian?
Canada has a long history. People have been living and building communities on this land for thousands of years. When the French established New France in the 17th Century, people called themselves Canadiens adopting the Algonquin word “Canada” for the region that is now Quebec.
However, when we talk about “Canada” today, we usually refer to the country created in 1867 by the British North America Act. The scattered British colonies in North America had little in common other than a tie to Britain far across the Atlantic and fear of being taken over by the United States. Internal problems such as political deadlocks in the Legislative Assembly of the United Province of Canada and heavy public debt from extensive railway building also helped pave the way for Confederation. It was more of a defensive strategy, rather than the spirit of nationalism. The underpopulated and poor British colonies came together only because the leaders foresaw the unpleasant alternatives.
When the British North America Act was finally passed in 1867, only four of today’s ten provinces belonged to the newly created confederation, Nova Scotia, one of the original four, immediately tried to get out of the deal. It took another 38 years for five more provinces to join, and Newfoundland waited another half a century before finally joining Canada in 1949. In the new Dominion of Canada, the only national institution to unite the scattered colonies was a distance government. We did not have any coast-to-coast adaptation of a “Canadian identity” for decades.
Until 1947, immigrants to Canada were considered “British subjects” and could not take up Canadian citizenship. We did not have our national flag until almost 100 years after Confederation. In 1964, after a long debate and 250 speeches in the Commons, the Liberal government headed by Prime Minister Lester Pearson replaced the old Red Ensign (featuring the British flag in the corner) with the Canadian Maple Leaf flag. Canadians could not even amend our own Constitution without requiring approval from Britain until 1982.
Remarkably, Canada remained united and our sense of nationalism grew stronger as the population became more diverse. Over the years, many generations of Canadians have endured difficulties and dangers coming to Canadian shores in search of a better life. Thousands of Black slaves escaping to freedom from the United States, the Irish escaping poverty and hunger from Irish Potato Famine that took a million lives, followed by the Chinese and Ukrainians in the late 19th century, the Tamils, Tibetans, Ugandans, Chilean and many others in the 20th century.
In 1979, the Canadian government stunned the world by introducing an unprecedented program to bring 50,000 Vietnamese “Boat People” to Canada. The government would match in sponsoring one refugee for each one sponsored privately. More than half of the initial target of Vietnamese refugees were sponsored by churches and private groups. In recognition of the contribution to international humanitarian and refugee aid programs, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees awarded the Nansen Medal to the “People of Canada” in 1986. This was the first time and still the only time that the medal has been awarded to an entire nation. My family was part of the 110,000 Vietnamese refugees who had settled across Canada by the mid 80’s. To the many Vietnamese families known as “boat people”, who risked everything, took to the ocean in small overcrowded ships, we were grateful for our new beginnings. Similar to the immigrants who came before us, we were given hope for a brighter future.
As I traveled across Canada, I have had the opportunity to learn more about its people and history. I have grown to appreciate how far the Canadian identity has come from its early days where, for example, it is hard to believe that Confederation was not always inclusive. John A. McDonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister who played a key role in the building of this country said in 1885: “The Chinese are foreigners … no British instinct or British feelings or aspirations, and therefore ought not to have a vote”. After the completion of the transcontinental railway, the federal government even imposed hefty head taxes on Chinese immigrants, but not anyone else entering Canada. Our country also forced Canadians of Japanese heritage to live in internment camps until 1949 (4 years after World War II ended) and turned away the steamship named Komagata Maru full of Punjabi refugees from British India.
Despite those earlier prejudices and mistakes, the country continued to reimage and embellished its self-image with every generation. Today, as Canadians, we live and contribute to the principles of a tolerant, inclusive, multicultural and progressive society. At the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, Yellowknife born poet Shane Koyczan, mesmerized thousands of people from all over the world with his poem “We Are More”. “Define Canada …”, he listed some of our country’s clichés like maple syrup, our good manners, and hockey greats wearing number 9 to 99 … then he went on to say:
“But we are more than genteel or civilized
We are an idea in the process of being realized
We are young, we are cultures strung together then woven into a tapestry
And the design is what makes us more than the sum totals of our history”
Today, Canada is no longer defined by what it is not but by what it is. We value our freedom of speech, religion, and human rights. Many generations of Canadians have made sacrifices on battlefields to bring peace not only to Canada but to many countries throughout the world. We appreciate our cultural differences and commitment to peace and social justice. We have come a long way to be a compassionate and accepting country. Our founding fathers who first met in Charlottetown would be astonished to hear that there are over 200 other languages in our country today, alongside the official languages of English and French.
Across the country, one can participate in more than 200 annual major cultural and social events such as Celtic Color International Festival in Cape Breton Island, The International Tatoo in Halifax Nova Scotia, Acadian Festival in New Brunswick, Festival de Drummondville in Quebec, Six Nations Pageant in Brantford Ontario, National Ukrainian Festival in Dauphin Manitoba, Mosaic Cultural Festival in Regina Saskatchewan, Edmonton Heritage Day, Vancouver China Town Festivals and Diwali “Festival of Lights” celebrations. Toronto, Canada’s largest city, is home to many diverse cultural events such as Caribana, Pride Parade and numerous street festivals such as Taste of Little Italy, Taste of India, Asian Food Festival, Taste of Manila Filipino Food Festival and Canada’s largest street festival, Taste of Danforth, welcoming more than 1.6 million visitors annually to Toronto’s Greek town.
The stereotypes of a hockey mad nation, canoes, and Mounties may still hold true, but we are now so much more. Just like our past, we continue to build the nation on the hopes and dreams of all those who call Canada home. We can proudly say that we live in a country of great natural beauty with universal medical care and one of the most comprehensive social safety nets that is the envy of the world. As Canadians, we know and value that diversity is the strength that will enable Canada to grow culturally and economically for many more years to come.
Happy 150th birthday Canada!