Community Soapbox: Misplaced Celebration

Sir John A. MacDonald, Bicentennial Celebration, Kingston, OntarioThere is nothing to celebrate about the foundation of Canada. Europeans came to this land for profit and imperial glory. They forced settlement and eventual westward expansion with lies and violence. They alternated between attempts to assimilate and exterminate the original people of the land. They built cities and fortresses and a railway through Indigenous territory for their own profit. Poor people, non-British or French Europeans and people of colour have always been pawns in this great plan, useful for building their infrastructure, defending their territory, and eventually toiling in their factories, but never welcome to share fully in the profit and glory that elites gained from stealing and destroying Indigenous land.

Here in Kingston, Ontario, where “every day is Canada day”, John A. MacDonald is at the centre of all of the misplaced celebration of this great era. This makes sense, because MacDonald is a perfect example of the kind of person who founded Canada. He pushed for and enacted many of the most disgusting and brutal colonial policies of the era. In an act that he would later refer to as his “greatest political accomplishment,” he pushed to disenfranchise and ultimately push out the Chinese population on the West Coast, saying that their presence would tarnish the “Aryan land” that he envisioned for the new country. He invented and implemented residential schools. He used starvation policies followed by military intervention to crush Metis rebellions and cement Canada’s expansion West.

John A. truly was a product of his time, and that’s exactly why he doesn’t deserve a party. He is a particularly ugly example of a period when white Europeans did particularly ugly things, all in the name of creating and expanding Canada. We have to remember this time because it is the foundation of a colonial project that continues to this day. Forgetting is inexcusable, as is celebration. The memory of these things should motivate us to fight against this colonial, racist country, not drink whiskey and sing about it.

Two years ago, somebody threw red paint on the large bronze statue of John A. MacDonald that stands in City Park in downtown Kingston. They wrote “murderer,” “colonizer,” and “F*ck Canada” on the base of the statue. A few days later red paint was poured onto a number of plaques around the city centre that commemorate MacDonald. Last year, the location of his 199th birthday party was changed at the very last minute after a bomb threat was received for City Park. The venue change was blamed on poor weather, despite the event being billed as “rain or shine.” Last week, a bucket of red paint was dumped on the plaque that marks his grave in Cataraqui Cemetary, and the word “Shame” was written in white across the steps to his grave. On the day of John A.’s birthday this year, members of the Idle No More movement and their supporters staged a powerful protest of the ceremony, singing mourning songs while various dignitaries and other speakers rambled on about the greatness of John. A., the greatness of Canada and other such nonsense.

And that’s only what we know about. After the first week of attacks on the statue and plaques, the John A. bicentennial commission, the city of Kingston, the police and the mainstream media shifted their strategy and conspired to cover these acts from the public. It is possible that many more things have happened but we can not know about them.

At the same time as they’ve been glazing over these acts of protest, the commission has seriously changed their tone when it comes to John. A. and the bicentennial celebration, at least in part – we believe – because the initial vandalism was well-timed and effective. He’s no longer just a great guy who deserves a great birthday party. Now he’s a “complicated figure,” with a “complicated legacy.” More than half of the events included in their “MacDonald Week” schedule this year ended up being critical events, including a debate on his legacy and an art piece in which a man dressed as Louis Riel lit a fire at the base of his statue. This isn’t happening because a bunch of nationalists, government hacks, and history enthusiasts have changed their mind about John A. and Canada. It’s happening for the same reason that outright attacks on their celebration are being covered up. They are including these events in an attempt to make their celebration of genocide look liberal, and they feel the need to do that because they are afraid. They are afraid that they can’t just uncritically love Canada anymore, that their work will be recognized as a political act rather than a public good. They are scared that their nationalist ideology will be recognized as racist. They are afraid that they’ll have to own up for the fact that to celebrate John A. MacDonald and the foundation of Canada is to celebrate genocide. And they want to celebrate that genocide, because they benefit from it, because they truly do love Canada, because they are in fact proud to be Canadian, with all that that entails.

Unfortunately for the Canadian government and the nationalists who support them, the legacies of genocide and land theft are not ‘complicated.’ They are disgusting. There is nothing to celebrate about Canada, its foundation or its current reality. There is no OK way to have a party about John A. MacDonald or the country that he created. They should not be allowed to have that party. We should not let them.

The party-planners are hoping to use John A.’s birthday as a kick-off for the bigger celebration that they are planning for 2017, the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation. We hope that we can too. The fireworks, “whiskey ceilidhs” and historical reenactments are just symbols, but Canadian nationalism thrives on symbols, and it propels and motivates very concrete acts of brutality, land theft, assimilation and repression. Let’s rain on their Canada Day Parade, and have that be a step towards fighting the colonial state they are celebrating. In doing so, let’s be smart, and find ways to protest. The birthday party for John A. is over, but his Canada is alive and well all around us. They are everywhere, and we should be too.

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Submitted to Kingstonist’s Community Soapbox by Isabella MacDonald.

Photo Credit to Michael Kooiman.

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  1. wordbeeps January 20, 2015

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