I was born in 1953. July 1 was called “Dominion Day” then, a holiday commemorating the formation of the Dominion of Canada in 1867. It became an official public holiday in 1879, and in 1982, July 1 was formally renamed “Canada Day” — a move away from the British colonial past.
July 1 was about fireworks, picnics and happiness at living in this beautiful country. Growing up in Ontario during the 1950s and ’60s, I believed that I lived in the best country in the world. We were still in the post-WWII era — a time of rapid growth and optimism. Canada’s reputation in the world was strong; the possibilities for young Canadians seemed infinite. Nothing in my experience taught me that statement was only true for some Canadians.
To be fair to my history teachers at Richmond Hill High School, I did know that treaties with Indigenous peoples had been signed but not honoured, and that Japanese Canadians had been interned in camps during the Second World War. I possibly heard a passing reference to the Chinese head tax. But these were minimal references that played a much lesser role in the story of our country than did our political and military relationships with England, France and the United States.
When I look back on my high school years, 1966–1971, I realize I have no idea whether there were any students at my high school whose families identified as Indigenous. Of the 500 students, only three or four would have identified as anything other than white Anglo.
I am not presenting this background to excuse or justify the past, but for context. So many of the people who have made important decisions about our institutions for decades came from exactly the background I have just described.
There is much that must change. Statues of white, racist men are toppling in our cities. Names of schools honouring some of those same white, racist men are being questioned and changed. Our collective story is being opened up, and in some cases ripped open. Our assumptions about our honourable history are being challenged.
Good. That is what needs to happen. We need to tell the truth to ourselves and to each other. We need to rewrite the curriculum in our schools — not just the optional courses, but the core, mandatory material.
Learning the truth about residential schools and the betrayal of Indigenous people in this country cannot be an option. Nor can it be an option that children learn that we have allowed systemic racism to flourish in our institutions for generations. Anti-Semitism, anti-Black racism, anti-Asian racism and Islamophobia all exist beside anti-Indigenous racism in our schools, justice and health systems and across our society.
We tell ourselves that we have tried. And we have — just not hard enough. Every time we move forward, there are forces that pull us back. One government starts to collect race-based data to tackle systemic racism and the next government stops the process. One leader or CEO introduces progressive practices into an organization, and the next leader changes course.
The work is hard. It forces each of us to look at and question our own biases. Systemic bias can only live as long as individual human beings let it live.
This Canada Day, I am changing the way I talk about this beautiful place we live. Since I was elected MPP in 2003, I have celebrated July 1 every year with people from the very diverse community that I represent in Don Valley West. I have always loved those celebrations. They have been filled with warmth and good will for each other and for this place.
I am holding onto that love, but I want it to fuel our resolve to change.
Every one of us will be stronger if we admit that there are too many Indigenous and Black youth in our jails; if we admit that it is our responsibility to make sure…