Who are we?

As an unabashed Canadian nationalist, I’ve been looking forward to Canada’s 150. It’s an opportunity to refresh and strengthen explicitly pan-Canadian institutions and forms of cultural expression in a way that stimulates new ideas and energy for the decades and challenges ahead. I well remember how the Centennial celebrations in 1967, along with Expo in Montreal and the Pan American Games in Winnipeg, created tremendous optimism, encouraged important investments in research, education, sports and the arts, and enabled a new wave of pan-Canadian discovery and enthusiasm. I’ve always thought the Sesquicentennial could do much the same.

Yet any celebration of Canada at 150 is fraught with contradictions and challenges. I look at the last 50 years with a feeling of accomplishment and anguish, pride in what we have achieved alongside anguish over the opportunities we have missed and the injustices we committed or turned a blind eye to. Is there a narrative that tells our story with both a critical and a commemorative lens? How can we take advantage of this special moment of reflection to tackle these contradictions and create a genuinely more equitable society? How can we do this at a time when many parts of the world are turning to xenophobia and fear?

In the last 50 years, we have certainly transformed Canada in commendable ways. We have nurtured an inclusive pan-Canadian identity that blends respect for the two founding European peoples with a multiculturalism that affirms more recent settler groups. Canada today is much more tolerant and open that it was during the 1960s. We proudly support universal health care through our taxes, and we have made higher education—as measured by the percentage of the age cohort that attends college and university—almost five times as accessible as it was then. There is gender parity in the federal cabinet and an openly lesbian premier in Ontario. Not surprisingly, Canada’s immigration website crashed immediately following the U.S. election.

Yet Canada is hardly a utopia. The terrible murder of six people while they prayed at a Quebec City mosque was not new or random. We have our own alternate-truth websites and political reactionaries seeking leadership roles. Toronto has a history of carding black men; just a few years ago Quebec proposed banning the wearing of religious symbols. A 24-year old First Nations man, Adam Capay, was kept in solitary confinement for four years and has still not gone to trial. I hope that the spirit of Canada 150 illuminates these injustices and inspires us to address them. 

Among our most urgent challenges, as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission argues, we must rethink the very meaning of Canada in a way that gives new recognition, in reconciliation and dialogue with the Indigenous peoples, to their much longer history on this land, and acknowledge their marginalization in the colonialization and suppression that was inextricably bound with the creation of the Canadian nation state.

I am confident we can do this—1967 was not without contradictions and difficult discussions either. I remember debating Canadian complicity in the war in Vietnam and South African apartheid, while popular movements in civil rights, feminism, environmentalism and the arts challenged long-held orthodoxies. We continually argued over how we defined identity and nationalism, illuminated by new approaches in the history and the social sciences that generated very different understandings of who we were.

I look forward to the discussions.

Professor Bruce Kidd is Vice-President, University of Toronto and Principal, University of Toronto Scarborough. Click here to learn more about his work as a scholar, community activist, Olympian and academic leader.

Learn more about how our campus is commemorating Canada 150.

Photo from National Flag of Canada Day celebrations on the University of Toronto St. George campus on Wednesday, February 15; faculty, staff and students came together to hold a giant Canadian flag in honour of Canada at 150. Watch the event (and flag!) unfold on the University of Toronto Alumni Facebook page.