Oh Canada…Why I am not celebrating Canada Day today.

Adrienne Attorp is a Sociology and Social Policy PhD student at Newcastle. She is also Canadian, and struggling with the problematic history of Canada Day, her country’s national holiday. She writes about this here.

Today, 1st July, is Canada Day, an annual holiday that marks the day in 1867 when the British North America Act was signed, uniting the colonies of Canada (now Ontario and Quebec), Nova Scotia and New Brunswick into a single Dominion – Canada – within the British Empire.

The holiday is typically celebrated with much fanfare: parades, concerts, fireworks, and large gatherings with family and friends which almost always involve a barbeque and lots of beer. I grew up wholeheartedly taking part in these activities and have continued to do so even as I have lived outside of the country, always finding fellow Canadians to mark the occasion with. Only in recent years have I begun to reflect on what Canada Day means and what I am celebrating when I take part in festivities to mark the occasion.

Photo credit: Maarten van den Heuvel

Canada is a settler colonial project of grand proportions. European explorers first ‘discovered’ what is now Canada in the 15th century. Early explorers, traders and missionaries were followed by settlers (including my maternal great grandparents) who were actively supported by their home countries – initially, Britain and France – to claim territory in this vast wilderness. In the mid-19th century, Canada built 1,600 kilometres of “colonization roads” in a bid to make it easier for settlers to claim land, and thousands of kilometres of rail were established. Over the course of a century, the Dominion of Canada grew to stretch across 9.9 million square kilometres, from British Columbia in the west to Newfoundland in the east, and far north past the arctic circle. A true feat of empire.

What has been left out of this narrative until relatively recently, is that in order for brave settlers to forge new land for King (and Queen) and country, a key problem had to be overcome: this ‘wilderness’ was, in fact, already inhabited by millions of people.

Various authors (e.g. see Bev Sellars, Nick Estes and Thomas King, among many others) have eloquently documented the process by which the British and French governments, then the Canadian (and American) government, set about destroying Indigenous people in what is now North America. There is not space here to even begin to detail this violent history, but in short, concerted focus was placed on systematically eliminating “the Indian Problem”.

Indigenous people were violently uprooted from their traditional homes and pushed far into remote areas where they would not get in the way of new European settlements. Generations of Indigenous children were taken from their families and “aggressively civilised” in residential schools, where they had their culture literally beaten out of them. This is not ancient history. Canada’s last residential school closed in 1996.

The Canadian government finally established a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” in 2008, and formally apologised for its treatment of Indigenous people that same year. However, for many, the apology rang hollow, as have subsequent apologies, including from a tearful Justin Trudeau. Many Indigenous communities in Canada still live in abject poverty, their suicide rates are the highest in the country, more than 4,000 Indigenous women have been murdered or are missing (something which has officially been classified as a genocide), and the Canadian government continues to steamroll over Indigenous rights to land and livelihood as it pushes through new pipelines and dams on Indigenous territory.

As Nick Estes and Nyla Matuk argue on the excellent Red Nation Podcast, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was more about Canada absolving itself of its crimes than about making tangible change. Moreover, what is there to reconcile if there was not conciliation in the first place?

Wet’suwet’en Land Defenders protest the construction of a natural gas pipeline that passes through their unceded territory in northern British Columbia, Canada
Photo credit: Jennifer Wickham

Canada is not unique in its treatment of Indigenous people. The United States, Australia and New Zealand, among others, are all products of similar settler colonial projects. However, many Canadians still seem unable to understand the implications of the European settler colonial project that birthed their country and remain fiercely – and uncritically – proud of their nationality. Canada Day narratives serve only to perpetuate this, almost entirely glossing over the colonial history of the country.

Equally, we must contest the narrative that these issues are simply ‘in the past’. To this day, Canadians hold tight to a pervasive narrative of Canadian ‘multiculturalism’ (e.g. Canada is a ‘mosaic’, unlike the United States, which is as ‘melting pot’), which overlooks the continuing influence of racism in Canadian society. This extends beyond the country’s ongoing reprehensible treatment of Indigenous people. Black people in Canada are twice as likely to be on a low income than other Canadians and are more likely to be a victim of a hate crime. In Toronto, Black people account for 37 percent of the victims of police violence despite making up only 8 percent of the population. I could go on.

So, I am not celebrating Canada Day today, not because I think Canada is a uniquely terrible place, nor because I think Canadians have nothing to be proud of. Rather, the history that this day in particular represents is something that should not be celebrated. Moreover, Canada Day celebrations perpetuate the notion that Canada is an unproblematic bastion of multiculturalism and progressive politics. Unfortunately, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Making the most of ESRC: Collaborating with researchers in Brazil

Clare Vaughan is an ESRC-funded PhD student at Newcastle University. She is currently researching the experiences of young women at risk of homelessness in the north east. She recently travelled to Brazil to develop new research links with other academics in her field, and to disseminate her own research findings.  Here she writes about her experience, and encourages other students to pursue similar opportunities.

As an ESRC-funded PhD student, I was lucky enough to be awarded an Overseas Institutional Visit grant, taking me to Brazil in May of this year. The purpose of the grant is to:

  • undertake additional specialist research training not available on the UK
  • develop language skill
  • establish research links that will be beneficial to their current or future academic career
  • disseminate early research findings
  • attend and participate in seminars where directly relevant to their research

My visit to the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP) allowed me to explore the latter three of the above points, working directly with gender and anthropology professor, Cynthia Sarti. I had reached out to Professor Sarti due to the close relationship between our research themes, and was excited at the prospect of developing the theoretical framing of violence within my own work.

I was invited to a number of events whilst at UNIFESP, and seeing the enthusiasm of students attending lectures up to 11pm gave me some food-for-thought! The highlight of my visit to UNIFESP was presenting to postgraduate gender studies students, delivering a presentation on the use of the visual method photovoice in research with young homeless women. Having an opportunity to present your work within an international context enables a totally different perspective on definitions and contexts that we often take for granted, and we had an excellent debate on the legal categorisation of ‘homelessness’ in the UK vs Brazil.

Part of my trip also included visiting Porto Alegre, to the very south of Brazil. Here, I spent time with gender scholar Dr Tatiana Maia from La Salle University and attended an incredibly interesting panel on the theoretical and social value of restorative justice (see pic below). My good friend and philosophy professor Fabricio conducted live translation so I was never left out of the loop!

From left to right: Fabricio Pontin, Brunilda Pali, João Pedroso

Completing an Overseas Institutional Visit to Brazil was, at times, a daunting experience. Arriving alone in a city of 12 million is not for the feint-hearted. However, the warmth of the people I met whilst there, the academic opportunities I was given and the sadness I felt boarding the plane home was testimony to the brilliant time that was had. I highly recommend applying for this scheme – you never know what connections and opportunities may come out as a result. And having a university-funded trip abroad wasn’t half bad either!