Canada. Oh, Canada. This country has defined so much of my life and who I’ve become over the years… it’s so difficult to reconcile the many emotions that have resurfaced during the nation’s 150th birthday. My Facebook newsfeed on Canada Day held such a diverse collection of sentiments from friends living in every corner of the country: from joy, nostalgia, and pride, to anger, sadness, and deep introspection. The contrast between everyone’s experiences has been so profound; this country means so many different things for Canadians from diverse walks of life. It is a place of refuge and a safe haven for refugees while simultaneously being a source of violence for indigenous and racialized communities. It is the land of hope and opportunity for some immigrants and the land of broken dreams for others. It is a multicultural oasis in urban centres and yet racism is very real, especially as you travel outside of major cities. We are proud of our universal health care, but thousands lack access to clean water in isolated indigenous communities. Canada is synonymous with freedom and liberation for many, but in the same space, there is a history of colonization, violence and genocide. There is trauma and there is healing; vast abundance and deep inequities; pride and shame; progress and regression.
Our physical geography mirrors this internal incongruity across the nation: from the frigid Arctic to the vast Prairies, to the Maritime provinces by the sea, to the mountains of British Columbia, to French Quebec, and the urban skyscrapers that grace Toronto’s skyline. I’ve only begun to understand what Canada means in different communities, exploring British Columbia, Manitoba, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec the past two years. What I thought was a reality for all Canadians at one time in my life, I now realize was only the reality of my privileged urban bubble in Toronto. Life in Thunder Bay, on reserves outside of Edmonton and in rural Canada seemed like a different country entirely. What I’ve realized, is that there is no singular experience of Canada that speaks for all of us and, more importantly, that this is okay. Not only is it okay, it is necessary to accept this fact in order to understand our country and where it is going.
What Canada means to me is deeply tied to what it means for others. After travelling to over a dozen countries, it’s become so clear that Canada has a special place in people’s hearts; one mention of where I’m from and the room is all warmth, smiles and questions. Even in the developed countries that I hear Canadians talk about with admiration, people believe we have something special here… and I agree. I will never, ever forget what Canada meant to the refugees I met in Europe. Canada has sparked the imagination of the world, and allowed it to believe that something better is possible. During a time of such global strife, instability, and suffering, Canada is a bright light in a dark night for millions around the world. A country of tolerance, compassion, justice, diversity and peaceful co-existence.
To me, this means something important, even though of course beneath the surface there are many imperfections and issues. My family sought refuge in Canada and it has been a long and bumpy road fraught with challenges to get to where I am now…so I understand deeply that our country has a LOT to improve on. But when I mention Canada abroad, a glimmer of hope lights up in people’s eyes and refugees share with me what Canada means to them. Their idea of Canada is so idealized and so beautiful, that it makes me want to help build a country that does this vision justice. This is what being Canadian means to me: being part of the co-creation of a unique national project based on our shared common values, and making room for everyone to contribute.
Travelling and working with migrants and those seeking asylum has redefined how I understand Canada. On challenging days, I remind myself that I am living the dream of millions around the world and to make the most of each waking hour if not for myself, at least on their behalf. I never take for granted the fact that being born here is like winning the lottery each and every morning; it is what has made the difference between life and death for me and my family. This country is the main reason that I am able to pursue my dreams and passions instead of being mired in poverty and conflict in Afghanistan. However, I am always cognizant of and torn by the fact that our country is also part of the reason why there is so much instability and poverty worldwide; it is part of a larger global system that perpetuates the inequities that make the world less safe for everyone. It’s not enough that I benefit from being Canadian; we need to do more as a country to ensure that people worldwide are able to experience the security and prosperity that we’ve become accustomed to. We must not turn a blind eye to our impact on the world.
I will never forget the tears of joy and hope in the eyes of refugees when they talk about their dreams of one day coming to Canada, but equally, I will never forget the tears of pain in the eyes of my Indigenous brothers and sisters when they talk about what has been lost and taken away from them in order for Canada to exist. Both emotions are valid, and we need to understand and make room in our hearts for people to share with us what Canada means to them, whether that experience is one of hope or pain. To create Canada, Indigenous communities were oppressed, killed and destroyed. They are still struggling to survive in a system designed against them. This is a fact we need to understand in its entirety. We need to rewrite our history books to include the darkest moments of our history alongside our brightest triumphs.
We need to hold space for all these conflicting and contrasting truths about our nation in order to move forward in a way that doesn’t leave anyone behind. An expression of anger against a colonial history does not mean someone does not love this land. On the contrary, it means they love it so much that they can’t let it move forward on a dangerous and unstable foundation of unacknowledged violence and the erasure of the Indigenous peoples who have been on this land for thousands of years. This is not sustainable in the long-run. Because I believe in Canadian values of justice and human rights, I have to stress that we need to do more to ensure that our celebration of Canada goes hand in hand with tangible action to restore security, freedom and justice for the most marginalized in our country.
We should celebrate Canada Day by increasing funding to support Indigenous youth at risk of suicide instead of spending $100,000 on giant rubber ducks. Celebrate by making sure that every citizen in this country has access to clean water, a healthy environment, a quality education, and the opportunity that we pride ourselves on. Celebrate by educating ourselves on the diverse histories and experiences of this land. Celebrate by taking action with, listening to and supporting those who are suffering because of the existence of our country, and by acknowledging the history of the land you live on. Celebrate by protecting the land and water from pollution and destruction. Celebrate by honouring the treaties that were signed when settlers first came onto the land, and by recognizing the autonomy and rights of Indigenous people.
Celebrate our history of welcoming those in need with compassion, by welcoming the newest immigrants into your neighbourhood and giving your neighbours a hand, wherever they are from. Much of our history as a nation has been defined by embracing waves of immigration, each building on the last and making our country more beautiful, diverse and resilient. I am proud of our tradition of welcoming refugees, from Black Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution, to German, Hungarian, Italian, Ukrainian, Jewish, Polish, Czech, Kosovar and Bosnian/Serbian refugees fleeing European wars throughout the 20th century, to Ugandan, Ethiopian, Somali, Vietnamese, Thai, Bhutanese, Cambodian, Chinese, Sri Lankan, Chilean, Pakistani, Iranian, Bengali, Palestinian, Afghan, Iraqi and Syrian refugees since then.
This is part of what makes our country so unique: unless you are Indigenous, you are the descendent of an immigrant or refugee, someone in search of a better life who risked it all to be here. Generations of people in Canada from around the world have left behind everything and been welcomed as “Canadian” and to take part in building this country. A Hungarian refugee to Canada once remarked that what makes Canada special is that it doesn’t focus on your past, but rather, on your future and where you’re heading. It asks how you are going to contribute towards shaping the future of the country.
This is why, to me, Canada is not just a country but an idea to be inspired by; a vision to chase. Marshall McLuhan once observed, “Canada is the only country in the world that knows how to live without an identity.” Although Canada’s expression of its nationhood diverges from the global norm, I don’t believe that means we lack a shared identity altogether. As Craig, my friend and fellow WelcomeHomeTO co-founder, eloquently reminds us: Canadian identity is defined by a set of shared values that we aspire towards together. Along this path, we will falter and make mistakes… but speaking for myself, I know I am committed to this vision and to all the people of this beautiful country I call home. I will continue to celebrate my love for this land by embracing diversity, advocating for the rights of all peoples, learning and unlearning the diverse histories of the country, getting to know and appreciate Canadians from all walks of life, and most importantly, by making sure that the “dream” or “ideal” that we have of Canada becomes accessible and real to everyone.
My home is in the hearts of everyone who shares this vision with me.
Written By: Derakhshan Q A, originally published on medium