Happy anniversary?

Share Button

In his piece about a totem pole erected on May 1 in front of Montreal’s Musée des beaux-arts as part of the city’s 375th anniversary celebrations, Nation writer Dan Isaac gives us an interesting quote from the totem’s carver, Charles Joseph. A residential school survivor, Joseph has a wry response to questions about the anniversary being celebrated in Montreal – and the 150th anniversary of Canada’s founding being promoted with an orgy of funding by a federal government that continues to shirk its financial obligations to Canada’s First Nations.

“People ask me what I think about Canada’s 150th birthday. I say, that’s theirs, we’ve been partying for thousands of years,” joked Joseph. “Let them enjoy theirs, ours is way beyond that.”

The fetish to celebrate political birthdays is much more than an excuse to blow a big wad on a huge party. In Montreal, it’s a transparent ploy to prop up the re-election bid this fall by Mayor Denis Coderre, with a helping hand from his Liberal friends in Ottawa.

And really, what is the big deal about a 375th anniversary? We usually celebrate nice, round figures, like hundreds, or even fifties. I’m pretty sure untold millions weren’t spent in 1717 on the 75th anniversary of when Catholic missionaries and a few French colonists arrived set up a mission dedicated to the Virgin Mary named Ville Marie on May 17, 1642.

They didn’t inquire how long the Mohawks had been living there. But when Paul Chomedey de Maisonneuve erected a cross on Mount Royal, life magically began according to those who write our history books.

Likewise, the 150th anniversary of Great Britain’s grant of limited sovereignty to a new dominion called Canada is the subject of pomp and ceremony and unlimited photo-ops for Prime Minister Selfie. But the celebration is a political statement of control, to legitimize the colonization and dispossession of the northern half of this continent. And it is not a happy anniversary – neither that of Montreal nor of Canada – for the people who had already occupied these lands for thousands of years.

There have been some attempts to acknowledge this. The City of Vancouver reluctantly decided at federal urging to participate in the national commemoration, but renamed its events as “150+”. It’s a nod to the fact that the arrival of Europeans was not the beginning of settlement. The land was already “settled.”

In fact, before diseases brought from Europe wiped out 90% of the Indigenous population in the area surrounding modern-day Vancouver – including Charles Joseph’s territory on the Johnstone Strait north of the city – more people were living in the region than were in New York City at the time.

So yes, if we are to observe these anniversaries, let us do so in the form of a memorial, not celebration. That might be the beginning of the reconciliation that is symbolized by Mr. Joseph’s totem pole.

Share Button

Comments are closed.