“Canada is a great country for people, indigenous and non-indigenous, to show their strength, resiliency and love, even if they come from difficult backgrounds. That’s what it’s about. Why we’re here. It doesn’t matter if you’re native, non-native, Syrian, Muslim, LGBTQ+, they’re here in hopes that people listen to their stories with an open heart and open mind.”
Luke (Wiyė.nox), Fort Langley
The Canada Day celebrations begin June 30 with a barbeque at a farm mid-way between Montreal and Ottawa. As the sun sets, the campfire grows, the beer flows and the guitars are dragged out for some off-key sing-along. Many across the country will be doing the same, kicking off the long-weekend festivities with a gathering of family and friends at homes, cottages, and campgrounds decorated with Canada flags. Every town and city will host its own parades and parties with family-friendly activities, food and music.
I’ve always, however, insisted that Ottawa is THE place to be for July 1, the country’s capital hosting the largest outdoor party complete with dance, music and fireworks. Boats festooned with flags and balloons parade down the Rideau Canal to their berth at the National Art Centre, music blaring to pump up the party mood. Tens of thousands of visitors dressed in red and white, temporary tattoos pasted to their cheeks or biceps, flags hung over their shoulders like superhero capes, congregate on “the Hill” to celebrate. The activities change from year to year but the standards remain – the Changing of the Guard, a Citizenship Ceremony for new Canadians, an airshow punctuated by the Canadian Forces Snowbirds‘ aerobatics, and concerts by Canada’s finest artists that reflect our diversity.
There are, however, always surprises. Moments after I arrive downtown, I encounter a scene that begs for a photo – a couple carrying a red and white canoe through downtown Ottawa on Canada Day. How utterly Canadian!
I love my country. As does the world, it seems. Everywhere I’ve travelled, I’ve been greeted with smiles when I respond to the question “where are you from”. A young man from Africa told me he hoped to someday emigrate to Canada because “it’s where you can make your dreams come true.” A young woman in Prague told me she wants to see the Rockies someday. “I love that you protect your wilderness,” she told me. A counsellor with the UNHCR in Turkey told me Canada was a “dream country” for Syrian refugees. I humbly admit that I’m proud of the reputation for being a safe, kind, and peaceful nation that I encounter in my travels.
Which is why I’m shocked to find Wellington Street (featured image) fenced off near the Parliament Buildings and I have to detour to Sparks Street Mall. Movement is difficult along the pedestrian strip as the flow bottlenecks around food trucks, Canada Day displays, and restaurant patios, the area not designed for such a throng. Sparks empties onto Elgin Street at the War Memorial and Tomb of the Unknown Soldier where the line I’d glimpsed earlier snakes through entry gates and into a tent. Inside, airport-like security rummages through bags and jackets, confiscating items as innocuous as a camera tripod (fortunately, I left mine in the car). They seem as embarrassed as I am unsettled by this new protocol and the guard apologizes for the inconvenience.
This is not the Canada Day of my youth, nor even my most recent visit four years earlier. I remember wandering on and off Parliament Hill at will, depending on the activities happening there at any given time. Perhaps it’s because Prince Charles and Camilla are in attendance. Perhaps it’s because of the terrorist attack on Parliament in 2015 that led to the deaths of two soldiers. Either way, it’s disappointing to discover that my safe and secure country has allowed fear to restrict our movements during what should be a celebration.
Not that it’s really impacted the mood. Large screens have been set up outside the secure zone so no one misses the festivities on the Hill. I skip the line I’m told is three hours long and make my way to the activities in Major’s Hill Park. Pipers in kilts and t-shirts play at the entrance to the park, a few revellers stepping to the buskers’ music. Past the gates, kids and adults alike line up to have their faces painted with maple leaves and Canada flags. Captain Canada, a staple at the events for as long as I can remember, poses for photos with visitors. Dance, music, and acrobatics are performed on stage between downpours, the weather unsettled that day.
I catch a whiff of the chicken barbeque hosted by the Chicken Farmers of Canada and realize I’m starving. There’s one thing I’ve been craving since I arrived in the city and I wander across Wellington to the Byward Market, hoping Dunn’s is still there on Dalhousie. It is and I indulge in a traditional smoked meat sandwich, stacked four inches high on rye bread with a side of hand-cut fries. Old school and as good as I remember.
Hunger sated for the moment, I meander back through the Market, stopping to watch the stone carvers from the local college displaying their craft, debating whether to wait in the block-long line-up for a beaver tail, choosing instead to get an Obama cookie at Moulin de Provence, and taking a selfie at the #Stand for Canada display.
My next task is to try my hand at the Canada quiz. I quickly answer some of the questions from memory (Marvel comic’s only Canadian superhero? Easy. Wolverine!) Others send me searching for the answer hidden somewhere in the in tourism booths displaying the best each province and territory has to offer. Nunavut catches my attention with its aurora borealis glowing over tundra plains, excluded from this road trip for the simple fact of being accessible only by plane. The young man from Iqualuit asks about my road trip, particularly the time I spent in Newfoundland. “I want to go there someday,” he says, eyes alight with longing. Another kindred spirit, I think.
The most recent downpour having abated, I wander back towards Major’s Hill Park and the National Gallery of Canada, intending to carve out a spot on the Alexandra bridge to photograph the fireworks. No such luck. A similar barricade of 8 foot fencing blocks access to the bridge.
How many times had I crossed that bridge in the past, inevitably meeting the small group of Québeçois protesters with their Fleur-de-Lis flag chanting “Vive le Québec libre!” (long live a free Quebec)? As much a part of Canada Day as the red and white paper flags stuck in pockets and ponytails, the absence of the separatist protesters is felt. I’d hoped to talk to them, interested in their perspective of what it means to be Canadian on our 150th.
I find a decent spot to watch, though not to photograph. The rain holds off long enough for an outstanding display of peony’s, chrysanthemums, weeping willows, and flying fish as we ooh and aah and smile at each other, sharing a brief connection with strangers you’d miss behind a camera lens.
The following day, the weather is slightly better and I make my way through thinner crowds and a very brief security check to Parliament Hill for the WE Day event. Founded by Canadians Craig and Mark Kielburger, WE Day is a celebration of youth working to create a better world both locally and globally.
The sea of smiling faces clutching paper flags and flashing noise makers reflects our cultural mosaic. Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Africans, Europeans, Asians, and First Nations have all gathered to acknowledge our past and pledge our commitment towards a better future. Our history is not without it’s black marks – the Chinese Head Tax, Residential Schools, the Sixties Scoop, and the internment of Italian and Japanese Canadians during the Second World War just a few of the blights on our inclusive and welcoming reputation. As much as we have to celebrate, we have much to atone, and this WE Day honours the First Nations communities and Canada’s commitment to reconciliation.
The line-up for the evening is a who’s who of Canadian sport, arts and culture – hockey player P.K. Subban, astronaut Chris Hadfield (famous for his video “Space Oddity” sung . . . .in space!), Lieutenant-General Romeo Dallaire, former child soldier turned motivational speaker Michel Chikwanine, paralympian Rick Hansen, and musical artists Nelly Furtado, the Barenaked Ladies, Les Trois Accords, and Hedley.
A highlight for many in the crowd (myself included) is an appearance by rock legend and activist Gord Downie, unwavering in his commitment to the memory of Chanie Wenjack, an Ojibwa youth who died of hunger and exposure after running away from his residential school.
The last time I saw Gord live was in my 20’s at the Commodore Ballroom in Vancouver. On Canada Day 2017, I know I’m seeing him live for the last time time and am honoured to be among the crowd to hear him speak. For the majority of Canadians, Gord Downie epitomizes the best we can aspire to become – a man who, despite his terminal illness, continues to work towards truth through song, stories and a foundation dedicated to supporting reconciliation through education and awareness. (Gord and the Tragically Hip held their last concert, broadcast nationally, in Kingston on August 20. Two months later, Gord passed away among family and friends.)
It’s on The Hill I meet Luke after noticing his t-shirt emblazoned with the words “Rename BC”. Curious, I ask what the new name should be. He laughs, not having an answer, and we get to talking about Canada Day and what it means to be Canadian. A First Nations man whose mother is a residential school survivor, he admits his feelings are conflicted. He’s seen the generational trauma caused by the Sixties Scoop and the residential schools, but remains hopeful for nation-to-nation rebuilding. He’s doing his part, working with first nations youth in a school program in BC. “The children are the way forward,” he tells me.
And they are impressive. The young speakers are leaders in their own right, Artists, musicians and activists, each working to create a better world one project at a time. The one who impressed me most was 20 year-old Anya Pogharian, co-founder of Dialysave, an affordable dialysis machine for developing countries. I can’t help wondering, what was I doing at 20? Oh, right . . . no . . . we won’t talk about that.
As the last strains of Hedley’s “Anything” fade, I realize, if I was looking for what it means to be Canadian, I’ve found it here, on this weekend, among these people, and in the words of Mustafa “the Poet” Ahmed. We ARE Canada. Each and every one of us. We are industrious and innovative, artists and activists, dreamers and doers. We are a nation that believes in the rights and freedoms embedded in our Charter. We uphold the values of diversity and inclusion. We come together to right wrongs committed against our neighbours, regardless of our religion, ethnicity or social status. We believe in giving back to our nation and to the world.
We may have lost our innocence, as the security implies, but we will not bow. The sins of our fathers have been laid at our feet and we will pick up our burden and move forward. It’s what we do.
I stop at the security gate on my way out and ask if this is to become the new norm. “They don’t know if they’ll do it again next year,” he tells me. I hope they don’t. But if they do, they should probably consider having food available.