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September-October 2016

Visions for Canada’s next 150 years

As Canada's sesquicentennial approaches, six writers touch on what it means to be Canadian

Becka Viau

Canada: A country, a nation, a landscape detailed in waterways, forests and plains, a natural and cultural ecosystem, a place, a name, a collection of stories bound with a common history. Canada is a construct, a myth built from these parts. And what is a myth but a powerful and pervasive narrative, an imagined reality perpetuated by a desire to live out the dominant fantasy.

The question I ask is who has written, decided, and preserved the prevailing Canadian narrative? Considering the colonial and predominantly white, english, and male control of the Canadian ideal, the national myth is essentially homogenous. However, this homogeneity is hidden behind a strategically woven story, a deceptive narrative neatly integrated into civil structures, institutions and government processes ­ described, listed and lived within the supposed ideals of multiculturalism, plurality and benevolence.

What would be an effective way to rupture this homogeneity? To interrupt the dominant story, and influence the Canadian narrative in a radical and truly disruptive fashion? How can we reveal potential and possibility in Canada and its future without breaking down the barriers that exist within the psychic and physical infrastructure of the nation?

I was paralyzed by these questions when confronted with the task of articulating my vision for Canada over the next 150 years. I felt trapped… as I often do, when considering my place within Canadian national identity and the institutions that govern its natural and cultural systems. It is easy to become apathetic and lost in a situation dominated by a voice that is ignorant to its own prerogative and far removed from personal experience.

I can’t continue to blindly play along, and circle back into the dominant structure of the national narrative. I want to break out of that cycle. As a self identified queer, feminist, white, English, cisgender female, eighth-generation Canadian, I don’t want to continue taking up space. I want others to speak, to vision, to imagine and create a new fantasy we can stumble about in together. Of course I have a voice too, (in this case and in many other opportunities I have been presented,) and my voice is enabled, by its varied privileges, to step aside. To open the dialogue and advocate for a discourse that is created between multiple voices of varied backgrounds and situated circumstances.

Where will Canada be, what should Canada do and how should we proceed should be answered through discourse powered by the voices of the people who currently live in and around the borderlands of the dominant narrative. Search for Canada, the imagined reality, the through the voices of people who already live on the edge of the dominant reality. Who really one could say already live in the realm of fantasy ­ a courageous place of possibility.

Listen to the borderlands. Be present in their imaginings, their desires. Be silent, my privileged voice, and listen…


Helaina Laland:

The year is 2164. The last fifteen decades or so have been rather trying for mankind. Canadians have had an especially hard time of it, what with the beaver fever outbreak of 2081 and the 2142 U.S. invasion of Fort McMurray and ensuing Martial Law. Thankfully, that was put to an end with the development of bovine methane power. This, in addition to greatly lowering greenhouse gas emissions globally, is what has made Canada one of the most influential (wealthy) countries in the world because of its vast expanses of forest and meadow, which have been mowed down to golf course standard and now serve as pasture for billions of cattle.

In the sports world, we have recently been celebrating Quilla daughter of Mabel’s zirconium medal win in four­-armed backstroke at the 2164 Olympic Games. Corporeal enhancements have made it a good time to be in athletics, along with the fact that athletes are now the highest wage earners in the country.

Since paper was banned in 2150 in order to conserve Canada’s few remaining trees, artists have been searching for alternative forms of hard media, which some believe to be more authentic than digital art, however primitive it may seem. Most recently, the trend has been toward lino cut, a technique that has been facilitated in modern times by high-­precision, cutting laser pointers.

Of course, it’s impossible to talk about the state of things without mentioning the latest fad to sweep the nation ­ analog watches. This isn’t the first time an archaic technology has become popular among “mode­-ites”, and it almost certainly won’t be the last. So­-called fad­-augurs are predicting a return to eyeglasses might be next, but really, who knows what the future holds?


Josie Baker:

I am not proud of Canada right now. We seem to be governed by the ideology that government’s role is not to build and maintain a stable, just society, but to facilitate corporate profits and to ensure a compliant workforce ripe for exploitation. As a nation we are actively ignoring the threats posed by climate change and increasingly desperate poverty. We are actively criminalizing First Nations activists, migrants, refugees, immigrants, and environmentalists. Canada today is embodying the worst of what our history has to offer; a history of colonialism, imperialism, and genocide.

The bold vision I would suggest for the future of Canada is to work to truly embody a Canadian ideal – that of democracy. A truly democratic system could nourish vibrant, resilient, communities across Canada. To be truly democratic, we need to fundamentally change the power balance of our society.

We need to reshape our economy–eliminating poverty has been within our power as a country for a long time, but it has not been considered profitable. The economic system that we have creates and profits from poverty. It creates and profits from environmental destruction. Poverty and extreme wealth are not acceptable and demand a price that we cannot afford. No one should have to choose between paying for medicine or buying food. No one needs to stay with their abuser because they can’t afford to leave with their children. No one should work full time and still have to rely on food banks.

We need to take steps to build resilience and abundance in our communities. We need to empower and enable communities to put their human creativity and ingenuity to work to face our common problems. To truly fulfill our democratic ideals, to work towards social and environmental justice, we need to build relationships of trust and collaboration with those on the margins. The voices of a few have dominated for too long. We cannot afford to continue to marginalize people – we need the voices and perspectives of everyone to meet our common problems. The change needs to come through community –we need to do the hard work of recognizing the wounds that we have inherited from our history and build alternatives that don’t repeat the mistakes of our ancestors. Inclusion takes a lot of work, and it is challenging, but in the process we learn about ourselves, about our assumptions, and we build relationships and we build trust. To create a democratic Canada, we need to face the wounds of our history, and we need to recognize the blindspots in our world view. As a nation, we must work towards our common survival and we need a vast spectrum of human creativity and wisdom to succeed.


Merray Gerges: 

Hi Becka,

After I messaged you last, I went back through previous bits of research and transcribed conversations and it became clear to me that I must use this opportunity to give space for someone who’s considerably more frustrated than I am. I spoke with Pamela Edmonds, a Toronto-­based curator of colour, a few months ago for a piece about tokenism in the Canadian art world that I was working on. I selected a few quotes from our conversation that I feel respond to the question at hand far more eloquently than I ever could. Feel free to pick and choose according to your needs. I’ve also attached the resulting piece for context:

“I strived to bring art that connected to different ethnic and cultural communities. I felt somewhat tokenized, and I still do even now, 15 or so years later. But that’s just the place that we’re at. We’re still not there. I learned that you take three steps forward and then there’s two back. But at least you got one ahead. That’s the price that you pay to be within the mainstream. I always try to be somewhat subversive within the programming that I do.

“You can’t just pick and choose and have everyone in this equal place because that’s not how it is in reality. You have to recognize that there’s discrimination that’s not being recognized. It’s sort of disingenuous. People don’t really believe it. I don’t think they really believe the exoticisation of cultures. On multicultural day, you sample the food. It’s not an understanding of that culture in terms of their contributions. It’s a nice idea. I wouldn’t want to give it up. But it has to be a critical multiculturalism somehow.

“It’s important to reach diverse communities but vital to reach the art world too to say, ‘I’m sorry but you’re gonna have to give up some of your power.’ People have to be ready for that dialogue at some point. It’s gotta happen. Recognition of that oppression is not easy to deal with. But I think it will happen because people will change over the generations. Might not be in my lifetime. That foothold of the white middle class male? It can’t keep up. It’s too multicultural of a world for that to stay. I don’t see it staying that way. We have to look at what art is in a different way, because the west­-centric art idea has changed. I don’t want to be in response to you, or intervening anymore. I just wanna go in and do stuff. Why do you have to reinterpret European art? Just forget about it. It’s tired. I don’t wanna respond to that anymore. I just wanna go about my business.”

Talk soon,

M


Diana Hosseini:

The Canada of tomorrow, the one that perhaps my great grand­children will grow up in, will be a place where they will never feel culturally alienated. No one should ever feel ‘other’ and thus strive to strip away and reject their home culture(s). I do not think that our society fully understands the potential social and psychological damage of today’s form of assimilation nor the fact that it even exists. We may not be in a situation where assimilation is forced and the process at hand is different than that of the shameful part of our history. However, it peaks its ugly head when people introduce themselves with alternate names or when a mother tongue is lost from one generation to the next. A name may seem like a very simple thing however they are our very first markers of identity. When a person provides a different name or a different pronunciation of a name, they sense that this is a requirement in our society, which means that their true self is excluded. Step by step, there are changes in the self, some of which are unfortunately irreversible or take years to heal. In terms of the mother tongue, it is a loss of knowledge and a sort of break in communication between parent and child. Remember that a translation may always have deficiencies.

There needs to be a superior level of understanding amongst us. At the end of the day, besides the Native population, we are all immigrants. Some of us can trace our Canadian lineage far back while some of us have just begun creating one. Being Canadian may mean something different for each of us but we are all here because our parents, our ancestors or we sought something better. Let us not be ignorant of differing languages, foods and perspectives on life. Instead, we should embrace the greatest privilege that we have and that is to be able to live amongst a multitude of cultures. We should be aware and respectful of our differences, it is by doing so that no one is excluded or feels ‘other’. In the Canada of tomorrow, I would hope that we have finally reached a stage where we can without hesitation claim to be a true model of multiculturalism.


Mireille Eagan:

“Under the eye of God, near the giant river,
The Canadian grows hoping.
He was born of a proud race,
Blessed was his birthplace.
The sky has noted his career
In this new world.”
–Translation of the original version of “Ô Canada” (1880)

It is said that Walt Disney is cryogenically frozen at the point just before death, under the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at the theme park that bears his name. When science is willing, Disney will be revived. The story may be a rumour, but it is far more interesting to imagine that it’s true. It speaks to the quality of our time – a result of 150 years of fluctuations between the apocalyptic and the romantic.

In Canada, for instance, a robust optimism informed the late­1800s to mid­1900s. It was predicted that Canada, with its harsh climates and vast natural resources, would forge a hardy people, a “True North, Strong and Free.” An indicator of the time is found in its art, in the celebration of (some of) Canada’s rugged landscapes. The whole thing was a myth, of course, intended to provoke a national identity. The next 50 years would assert the errors found in this approach, that just beyond the frame of the painted solitary trees were people ­ among them First Nations, immigrants, and women.

It is the nature of progress that we respond to what came before. Future people will, therefore, find us misguided, confined by the ideologies of our time. It is humbling to consider that all our current predictions, fear stories, and saccharine antidotes may be charming relics.

If all goes well in terms of science and rumour, Walt Disney will be our ambassador to the future. A product of his time in many ways, he adapted old stories and fairytales to eliminate the macabre, and invoked happy endings where they may not have been before. As Disney hobbles around the future in his freezer-­burnt body and antiquated moustache, I hope that he will realize that he has become what he gave us, what we want—a reminder. In his words: “People look at you and me to see what they are supposed to be. And, if we don’t disappoint them, maybe, just maybe, they won’t disappoint us.”


The voices represented by the ­co-authors—Diana Hosseini, Helaina Lalande, Merray Gerges, Marie Fox, Josie Baker and Mireille Eagan—are a small selection of people. I acknowledge that some key demographics/communities are missing including but not limited to francophone, indigenous, senior citizens, disabilities, varied genders… this essay is an attempt to present a theory in practice, and is not claiming to be all encompassing. I actually feel that this essay’s approach is reflected in the A Bold Vision anthology’s structure and very existence.

My vision for Canada over the next 150 years requires that as a nation, we forgive ourselves for eagerly consuming a diluted sense of ourselves. Our story has been simplified to invoke happy endings for a powerful few. A homogenous wash over a complex and difficult history. But this isn’t the end, the Canadian narrative continues, and we all play a part its’ creation. Let us embrace our failures, acknowledge the complexity of a truly multi­-peopled culture, look to the silenced and listen for possibility.

To be Canadian shouldn’t be comfortable. It should be unstable, disruptive, and unrelentlessly challenged by difficult discourses that are propelled by the far reaches of accepted reality.

 

Possibilities was first published by Becka Viau in 2014. It is co-authored by  Diana Hosseini, Helaina Lalande, Merray Gerges, Josie Baker, Marie Fox, and Mireille Eagan. An excerpt of this piece appears in the September-October 2016 issue of This.

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