Canada's Sesquicentennial Conference

A Sesquicentennial Conference Uncovered

About a year ago, I was asked to help moderate a community conference in Halifax that had been organized to brainstorm ideas for Canada’s upcoming sesquicentennial in 2017.  I was a grad student, and they were paying a hundred bucks for a morning’s work and providing a free lunch; naturally, I agreed. Held at what can only be described as an unconscionably early hour on a Tuesday morning, the conference was meant to bring together people from Nova Scotia’s various communities and interest groups to discuss how the province might celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary.

The organizers were obviously hoping to recapture some of the optimistic nationalism that had preceded the celebration of the centennial in 1967, and I wondered how many of the people present were as sensitive as I was to the rather ironic parallels between the two moments. The centennial celebrations took place just as Trudeau-era liberalism was coming into full swing, and the nation was forging a bold new identity no longer narrowly rooted in British colonialism. After all, 1967 was also the year of the first Caribana, the year of the Royal Commission on bilingualism and biculturalism, the year of “vive le Québec libre.” Almost fifty years on, Stephen Harper (perhaps the most ambitious Canadian leader since Trudeau) is no less boldly and intentionally attempting to re-shape Canadian identity along a different axis—one that emphasizes the Monarchy, the military, and the very colonial past Trudeau’s liberals were so vigorously trying to get away from. I was curious to see how overtly political the conference would be in framing Canadianness for the twenty-first century.

A Conference Concerned

Regardless of my own concerns about the ominous parallels between the sixties and this decade, the conference quickly showed itself to be organized in the great tradition of Canadian political correctness. There was the predictable range of entrepreneurs, poets, activists, representatives from the arts, politicians, immigration workers, and business magnates, representing (no less predictably) the province’s Mi’kmaq, Acadian, Scottish, Africadian, and recent immigrant heritages. After a prayer from a Mi’kmaq elder, the event began with the (again, predictable) series of speeches from important community leaders. The speakers were a carefully engineered display of Canadian multiculturalism, and the speeches themselves so delicately choreographed the complexities of gendered, ethnic, and linguistic difference that even I found my heart (shrunken and embittered though it may have been from a year of post-colonial studies) rise into my throat at times. In that room, surrounded by those people, it was difficult not to hope that Canada the Good might be more than a fever dream of the past—however damning evidence to the contrary might be.

But as the speeches continued, I began to notice something rather troubling; while there was plenty of diversity, respect, and goodwill from all sides, there was also a clear imbalance in the way power was distributed. It seemed that all of the activists, artists, and community organizers were women (Acadian women, Syrian-Canadian women, Mi’kmaq women) whose speeches were eloquent and carefully-worded arguments for why their organizations were providing necessary services that would be impossible without continued (or renewed, or increased) funding. The men, on the other hand, were former political leaders, businessmen, or entrepreneurs with deep pockets. While these men were undoubtedly progressive and committed to social change, the reality of the situation was starkly apparent: whatever else has changed since 1967, the people with political power and the people with money are still predominantly white men.

Canada's Conflicted Conference

Progressive and Committed to Social Change …

Ever since the policy of official multiculturalism was declared in 1971, Canadians of European descent like myself have fallen in love with the idea that our nation is a more-or-less harmonious mosaic of difference (an idea supposedly contrasted by our neighbours to the south). Our education system and media have put a great deal of effort into celebrating ethnic differences within Canada, and that celebration has usually focused on culture. We assumed, perhaps, that by teaching our children to appreciate the external markers of difference, we would teach them to appreciate different people. The problem is that Europeans (and their North-American descendents) have generally been quite fond of the external markers of difference—so long as they can control the people that difference marks. European exoticism furnishes us with many examples of this in all of the arts, from Gauguin’s Tahitians to Duncan Campbell Scott’s “The Onondaga Madonna” to Claude Debussy’s use of the gamelan; imperialists were fascinated by the people they conquered, but the artists who celebrated the myths, melodies, and textures of these cultures were often creating art for audiences that were actively involved in the conquest, domination, and erasure of these very same cultures.

A Conference Conflicted

Racism in North America has never been as simple as hatred: it has always also included a perverse kind of enthrallment. The African-American minstrel, the Stage-Irishman, the stoic aboriginal—these caricatures are less expressions of hate or revulsion than of a most insidious and violent affection for cheap, surface-level difference. Canadians of European descent are all too complicit in this strange bait-and-switch when they use respect of difference to mask inequality and celebrate culture so that they do not have to share power.

Because I’m not a very good moderator, I spent most of the discussion period following the speeches talking to the elder (who had a lifetime of experience providing addictions counseling as well as a number of amusing golf stories) and a young woman who runs a counseling service that helps at-risk aboriginal youth complete their secondary education. She was concerned that her funding wouldn’t be renewed and that she would have to limit the scope of what was already a part-time venture. After the conference ended, I expressed my sincere hope that this wouldn’t happen, that her funding would be renewed, that she would able to keep doing her desperately important work. But as I walked down Barrington Street and looked up at City Hall’s elegant steeple and at the bank towers and public buildings that march down to the harbour, I knew that it wasn’t enough. The power to distribute funds is still in the hands of a relatively small and historically privileged group. Until that changes, nothing will.

 

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