I can still remember the moment I got down and kissed Canadian soil.
It was tarmac, actually. I’d been travelling for 45 hours from northern Russia to my home of Victoria, BC. I spent that summer with my best friend (both of us having just graduated with our bachelor’s degrees) running a Canadian International Development Agency project in Siberia that promoted inclusion for youth with disabilities. My time living in, what to me, was a foreign culture, gave me perspective on what I thought being Canadian was all about. The funding for the project was actually motivated by CIDA’s desire to foster relationships between Canada and Russia. I was there, in some capacity, to represent Canada and demonstrate “Canadianness”, while collaborating with Russian agencies on developing inclusion programs. While the development work was interesting, the most profound aspect of my trip was the relationships I developed with the families we worked with. Although I could barely speak Russian, I experienced deep connection with them. I can recall befriending one family who invited us to their dacha (cottage). We spent the weekends connecting through hiking the Russian taiga and sweating in their makeshift banya. That summer changed my life. But, it was also tough. It was the first time I really ventured away from home, on my own.
So, as I exited that plane at Victoria International Airport and smelled the salty ocean air, I was overcome with emotion and fell to the tarmac and kissed it. Ugh, even writing that was hard. It sounds dramatic, doesn’t it?
In retrospect, I recognize that it was more likely that home represented comfort to me, after spending three months in relative discomfort. But, at the time, I thought my sentiment was purely driven by pride for my country. And, in some parts it was. But, I now realize that my understanding of my Canadian identity was not particularly nuanced. I was desperately trying to grasp on to something. My relationship with my Canadian identity has always been complicated. I’m a brown-skinned “first generation Canadian” of Indian and Bangladeshi descent. Growing up, I was regularly reminded by society that I was not as Canadian as my white peers. I can also recall going to India as a kid, looking for some form of acceptance in a place where everyone else looked like me, but still feeling like an outsider. And so, there was a tangible sense of displacement I carried. I don’t know that my experience is unique. I’m sure many people could relate.
My trip to Russia was about 9 years ago. Since then, my understanding of my identity has shifted. I’ve learned more about myself. I’ve also learned more about my country and its history. Three years ago, I attended the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in Edmonton. Prior to attending, I was somewhat aware of our history, but I don’t know that I had truly connected with it the way I did when I witnessed the stories shared by survivors of Canadian residential schools. It shook me to my core and since then I’ve acquainted myself with the TRC report, have tried to read more Indigenous writings and to be an ally in whatever capacity I can be to First Nations peoples in Canada.
Despite being born in this country, I am a settler. I’ve done much thinking about how my parents ended up in Canada, largely influenced by toxic remnants of colonialism in India and Bangladesh. But, I am still a settler. And so, as part of my settler Canadian identity, I think it is imperative that I learn about our history, listen to the stories of First Nations peoples and do what I can to help amplify their voices.
The celebrations are starting for Canada’s 150th anniversary. In my mind, Canada 150 should focus mostly on educating Canadians about the history of cultural genocide carried out by our government. We must recognize that in celebrating our Canadian pride, that there is also much to be ashamed of. In promoting reconciliation, I also think Canada 150 plays a role in teaching Canadians about about the rich and diverse culture of First Nations peoples. There are over 600 communities in Canada with their own traditions and culture. There’s obviously much more that can be done, and I am certainly not the expert here, but these are just a few of my thoughts.
I love my country. And that is exactly why I feel it is so necessary to concentrate Canada 150’s efforts on reconciliation. My Canadian identity is one that celebrates our freedoms and diversity but also, more importantly, recognizes that these privileges are possible as a result of cultural genocide and ongoing oppression. To celebrate Canada without acknowledging its true history would be a travesty. I suggest we shift the focus of Canada 150 from celebration to reflection. In reflecting on what it means be a Canadian, we should also reflect on what it took to make Canada what it is.
Indigenous leaders and scholars I’ve learned from (please send recommendations my way to post here):
Robert Jago: Twitter
Read the TRC report here.