“Canada is not Canada. We are not the country we think we are.” These are the words of recently deceased Canadian icon, Gord Downie, before the release of his graphic novel/solo album “the Secret Path.” Countless articles have been written since his death to celebrate Downie’s life and thank him for his many contributions to Canadian cultural identity.
Downie understood Canada as both a beautiful and troubled place. He loved his country, but he acknowledged its problematic past—a past that is often overlooked. His bucket list since being diagnosed with brain cancer consisted of helping as many people as he could. He gave his fans a heartfelt goodbye in the form of one last tour, and he rose awareness for Indigenous rights issues.
Gord’s dying wish was to start a conversation. “History will be rewritten. We are all accountable,” he wrote in a statement about Canada’s treatment of its First Nations. “This begins in the late 1800s, and goes to 1996,” he said, referring to the year that the last residential school in Canada was closed. Downie wanted to bring attention to the vast amount of work that is necessary to repair Canada’s relationship with Indigenous Peoples by getting people talking about the injustices that have occurred in our past and continue to play out in Canada’s ongoing narrative. He took the first step with an album and graphic novel about Chanie Wenjack, an Indigenous boy who escaped from a residential school in 1966 only to freeze to death on his journey home. Downie wrote: “‘white Canada’ knew nothing about this. We weren’t taught it in school, it was hardly ever mentioned.” This is why we are not the country we think we are: we don’t know our own history. Until the Canadian consciousness is able to confront its ugly past, Canada will not be Canada. We will be united as a country only when we learn how to accommodate those who have long been neglected.
‘White Canada’ has established a relationship with Indigenous groups that it needs to confront.Our national identity too often doesn’t include minority groups, and they are unrepresented in our government’s legislation and in the general construction of the Canadian identity. Racism in Canada happens behind closed doors. Canada tends to think of itself as the epitome of tolerance and inclusiveness (and we LOVE to smugly compare ourselves to our downstairs neighbours), but our actions tell a different story. We tend to push issues that affect Indigenous Peoples’ communities—such as low-quality schooling, high suicide rates, and missing and murdered Indigenous women—from our minds. Perhaps the first step, as Downie proposed, is to learn about our past, but that is only the embankment on a long journey towards reconciliation. The more difficult step, which, as a nation, we have not yet taken, is to make real concrete changes in our thinking about our identity, and our relationship with the other inhabitants of our country.
We need to take on the responsibility of informing ourselves about Indigenous issues and vote for politicians who promise to create real change, and hold them accountable for the promises that they make. At the last Tragically Hip concert ever, Gord Downie told the crowd: “We’re in good hands folks, real good hands. [Trudeau] cares about the people way up north.” This compliment served to put the spotlight on Justin Trudeau and to give him a responsibility to uphold. Trudeau has already established himself as an advocate for Indigenous rights. Hayden King, assistant professor at the School of Public Policy at Carleton University, said: “I think this government is particularly exceptional for showing up to class but just failing to do any of the work”, referring to Trudeau’s many meetings with Indigenous communities and his focus on Indigenous rights in public speeches. According to CBC, “during the 2015 election campaign, Justin Trudeau told First Nations that if [they] elected him, he would absolutely respect [their] legal right to veto any development on [their] territories.” We need only to look at Indigenous peoples’ outrage at Trudeau’s approval of the Enbridge Line 3 Pipeline and the Kinder Morgan Pipeline to see that that promise was quickly disregarded. According to The Globe and Mail, the Union of BC Indian Chiefs said the Kinder Morgan Pipeline “poses an unacceptable risk to the health, safety and livelihoods of First Nations throughout British Columbia.”
Gord Downie’s attempt to educate Canadians about their history, and his plea to Justin Trudeau to do more for Indigenous groups should be seen as a step towards reconciliation. If our involvement as Canadians with Indigenous issues ends there, then we will not achieve real reconciliation. If we really want our relationship with Indigenous Peoples to change then we need to commit to the less glamorous side of the movement. We need to hold our politicians accountable for the promises they make to those communities. We need to empathize with people in different social positions from ourselves, and ask how issues such as oil pipelines affect groups that we don’t belong to. We need to work to better our relationships with Indigenous peoples all the time, not only when it is attractive or convenient.
Tyson Burger is an English Literature honours student at Concordia University in Montreal. Follow Tyson on Twitter: @tyson_317.