A critical look at Canada 150: Annalee Lepp

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We asked community leaders and educators about Canada’s sesquicentennial anniversary, to reflect on this country’s present, past, and future.

Annalee Lepp | Chair of the Gender Studies Department

The Martlet: What does it mean to you to be a Canadian, and what is a Canadian identity?

Good question. Well I think that on a technical side, being a Canadian [means] that you carry a Canadian passport — that’s what ties you to this nation called Canada. Because I’m a gender studies professor I’m also a social and gender historian, and I think this whole idea of belonging to a nation and a national identity is one that is cultivated oftentimes in schools, or it’s cultivated amongst people who migrate here, and so forth. I think if we look historically, Canada was built on this two-nation theory: that Canada was founded by the British and the French and that was sort of the framework within which Canada as a nation was built. I think that even in the 1960s, when they were talking about Canada becoming bilingual and [the idea of] multiculturalism, there was a lot of discussion, particularly in Indigenous communities, that indeed the two-founding-nation theory did not hold true. And that clearly Canada is a white settler colony that was colonized by the British and the French.

In that period there were a lot of various groups of European and other people that had immigrated here that felt that the two-nation theory didn’t really hold for them. And hence we had this idea of creating multiculturalism as part of the framework of Canadian nationhood.

So being Canadian technically is about having a Canadian passport or permanent residency here, but I think that oftentimes, if we look at the literature, they talk about ‘Canadian Canadians’: those who assume they belong here the most. And then we have all of the other Canadians: the Asians, the Japanese, the Russians, the Ukrainian-Canadians, who are sort of here, you know, they don’t fit into the ‘Canadian Canadian’ category. And what all of this completely erases is that this is Indigenous land that was stolen from Indigenous people through the processes of colonization. So it’s a long-winded question. I do think that governments and institutions do promote the idea of Canadian identity, but Canadian identity, throughout its history, has never really been defined. The only way in which Canadian history is often defined is that we’re not Americans. So it’s a negative rather than a positive.

In the context of your work, what does Canada 150 mean to you?

So I was trained as a Canadian social and gender historian, so I do remember when I started teaching the Canadian history survey course in the history department in the early ‘90s when I was a sessional instructor. The way in which the course was organized is that you taught pre-Confederation and post-Confederation. So Confederation was seen as this significant marker in Canadian history. And I always thought that was rather odd. Why is Confederation this moment that is identified as the critical marker of a shift in history? And from the perspective of being a gender and social historian, the question was [about] some people that got together in PEI [who] said, ‘let’s build this place and develop this national policy.’ The national policy also included, at that time, that they were going to clear the west, the plains, and colonize that land. [That] was part of the national policy. But the question I always asked in the class was, ‘did Confederation really matter?’ The implications, of course, mattered for people, but why is this the most important marker of the Canadian historical trajectory? And from the perspective of working class people, women, Indigenous peoples, and the fact that the country was also built on African slavery, then the question is, for them, for people in their everyday lives, what was this thing that we call Confederation, and how significant was it as a historical marker?

I think that the implications certainly were significant for the development of a nation. The implications, of course, are significant, and for many people were devastating, but, at the same time, why do we identify that as the most important moment in Canadian history?

So in terms of Canada 150, I feel that nationalism as we see a lot right now in the world — that kind of virulent nationalism — is dangerous. It is exclusionary. It’s the basis upon which you decide who belongs and who doesn’t belong. It’s also the justification for border security and stringent immigrant policies. And this nationalist impulse also erases the practices that created the country, whether it’s colonization of Indigenous lands and peoples, [or] the fact that there are areas of the country that relied on African slaves to build infrastructure, [or] the fact that the country relied on Chinese labourers to build the railroad. So, at its very foundation, racism and discriminatory practices were there.

So why do we celebrate this? Clearly it’s about developing attachments to a nation, but I guess I am sort of anti-nationalist in my politics because of the foundations upon which nations are built, what processes have been involved in that, and also the exclusionary logics of nationalism.

What would you like to see Canada be like in the next 150 years?

That’s interesting. Well, I do think that the first agenda is to really address — and it’s not for me to say what that might look like — but I think that the fact that, as someone who was born here, I am living on stolen lands. I think that that needs to be addressed, and I think that Indigenous peoples of this country would take the lead on that and set the agenda. I do think that we need to address all of the discriminations that are oftentimes erased through Canadian values of multiculturalism — you know, [the idea that] we are generally a peaceful nation. I think there are a lot of things that get lost or erased in that; whether it’s racism against people of colour, Islamophobia, homophobia. I think we need to really address poverty in a really significant way, because we are a wealthy, first world nation but we have really significant poverty rates. And I think that we need to really tackle climate change and the way in which we’re destroying the environment. So in 150 years, then, we would have settled the relationship with Indigenous peoples, whatever that looks like, and that’s something that, as I said, would be led by Indigenous peoples, [and] we would live in a society where social justice is the primary political impulse. But that’s very, very idealistic. And I’m not sure that we’ll last 150 years. I don’t think the planet will last 150 years, so maybe we should shorten the timeline (laughs).

To read more interviews from the feature, click here

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