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Musings

What is it to be Canadian?

I recently came back from Ottawa where I spent Canada day. 

The rain woke me up early on July 1st while I was sleeping in a park.

I woke up feeling lost. I knew what Canada day was like in Ottawa but I had no idea how to relate to it anymore. Canada day as I knew it felt empty to me.

So I decided to give the day to explore what it could mean to me to be Canadian and to celebrate that.

I went first to the museum of Civilization, which the Harper government decided to rename the museum of History. The word civilization was too complicated for Harper, a man told me over my morning coffee.

The entrance fee to the museum was gift to Canadians on Canada Day. I received the gift.

I first went to the First Peoples exhibits, which shares artifacts of a way of life on this land we call Canada dating back ten thousand years ago. This gave my day ground to stand on: a deep connection to the earth and land.

From there I was drawn to a movie and exhibit about Ancient Greece. I love and have always loved Greece for reasons beyond my comprehension. But I sense it has much to do with the virtues Greek civilization stood and still stands upon and how these virtues have shaped Western civilization and humanity at large. In the movie the narrator said something like, “you are watching this movie because you are also Greek.” The ancient Greek pursuit of the Good, True, and beautiful is a gift that has shaped much of our living to this day.

Being of settler skin I must acknowledge that the pursuit of the good life my ancestors sought in Canada a few hundred years ago somehow originated in Greece, at least in spirit. I feel that the root of the Western migration and search for virtuous living is deeply connected to Ancient Greece.

After the Greek exhibit I sat for sometime feeling more lost. I felt in-between two worlds, two forms of consciousness that both make me and yet I could not feel inside me nor outside where or if they come together.

The last exhibit I wanted to see was about Terry Fox. Somehow Terry’s spirit seemed to draw me closer to the synthesis I was longing for. Terry’s mission was simple: he transformed his wound, suffering, and pain into a gift for others, a gift that continues to give every year all over the world. Terry ran the land of Canada with a simple and committed message. He was also virtuous: when sponsors swarmed him with their own agenda trying to feed off the momentum of his cause, he said no to them and protected the purity of his run. He was committed to his cause to support cancer research. It wasn’t about anything else to him.

Terry was and continues to be grounded inspiration, something that is made possible in being of Canada, of deeply rooted living and the pursuit of the good life that was brought here. Canada made Terry and he continues to make Canada. The spirit of Terry Fox invited the spirit of our nation and I believe that was his gift: he helped Canada realize more of itself.

Of course, there is much more to the story of Canada, and it should not be overlooked even on a day of celebration, for this story grounds us even more in what it could mean to be Canadian and to take a day to commune with that.

From the museum I walked to my favorite place in Canada: Victoria Island. Victoria island sits in the middle of the Ottawa river, between Gatineau and Ottawa, just west of Parliament Hill.

I learned that the people of the Algonquin nation used the island for thousands of years as a place to meet, trade and have celebrations. The island became an epicenter for the fur trade in Canada where aboriginal peoples, explorers and merchants exchanged goods and culture.

The island, like the Ottawa region, is unceded, un-surrendered Algonquin territory and has been recognized as such. It was given back to the Algonquin people where there is now a protected sacred site as well as cultural exhibitions. The sacred site is only open to the public on Canada day. I have been to the island many times but I had never been inside. I was grateful to be welcomed in.

I spent the day listening to story, song, drum and dancing with Algonquin teachers young and old. They told me stories of lies my ancestors told them. I received them. I felt their discomfort when I wanted to get closer to them. I accepted this distance. I know the history that stands upon. I own it.

There is an impersonal wound in the history of Kanata which also bears a gift. The wound is that what was rejected, oppressed, and violated over several centuries in the First Nations people was not only cultural genocide. It was a spiritual attack on our very own selves, on our nation. This genocide was more than a loss of culture, spiritual ceremony, and the way of life of so many First Nations. What we (settlers) took from them, we also took from ourselves and the soul of the country, blind to the very medicine our pursuits of ungroundedness needed, and still need very much to locate our modern culture firmly in land, history and embodied virtue.

The reclamation of Canadian First Nations culture, identity, spirituality and empowered living is not only culturally specific. It is a reclamation of what it is or could be to be Canadian, and the humility to open to the fact that we may not even know yet.

We must recognize that we are young as a nation, as our 50-year old flag exemplifies. And maybe, the flag’s meaning is not made yet. Maybe it is up to us to make it.

How do we make it? I believe we make it by letting it—the soul of the nation—speak to us without conditions of comfort or exaggerated cultural pride. Pain and the redeemed joy of it speaks its own language. It initiates us into discovering just who we are and allows us to celebrate all that we are.

I feel the pain and discomfort, the shame, the richness, the earthiness, the simplicity, the peacefulness, the joy, the inspiration, as well as the unknown of what it is to be Canadian.

Happy Canada Day.

William WalkerComment