A critical look at Canada 150: David Lau

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Canada-150-Feature-TitleWe asked community leaders and educators about Canada’s sesquicentennial anniversary, to reflect on this country’s present, past, and future.

David Lau | Executive Director of the Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society

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

Well, in terms of me being a Canadian [or], I imagine, if I were American or French or German or whatever, it would be the same answer. Canada is a really great place. We have a really interesting history, we have wonderful communities, and, in general, we have a society, I think, that strives to be optimal in a lot of ways. And it is a new country, and we have layers and layers of migration that are strengthening, so we’re different from a lot of places that might have their own Indigenous communities who have never been pushed aside or displaced, and they’ve always been the majority. Canada has a really sort of unique role. We’re also up at the top of the planet. You know, on Planet Earth, we’re way up here. We have large oceans and a huge border with a relatively similar country beside us. So we don’t have a lot of the border conflicts that have been challenging for other countries, and it’s allowed us to have an unusual amount of peace. And I think that as a Canadian it’s important that we look at Canada in the context of the world and we don’t get a misunderstanding about ourselves that we’re incredibly peaceful people.

It’s just a fluke of history and geography that we happen to be in a spot that has appeared to be immune to conflict in a lot of ways. But because we have that inoculation, it’s really important, I think, as Canadians, [to] work to make sure that we remain peaceful, as communication makes everything seem smaller and air travel makes everything seem smaller. Because really, to come to Canada 100 years ago, you had to get on a boat. You had to steam over here. And it took weeks and months, and then most people don’t know, but [at] Beacon Hill Park, there was an area where people were stuck, in a camp; you had to sit there and kind of de-contaminate, and then enter Canada. And then all sorts of people just weren’t allowed in.

Now, you basically get your visa [and] seven hours later, you’re landing in Vancouver or Calgary or some airport and you’re in Canada. So our connectivity with the Earth has really shortened both the length of time and the difficulty to get here. Our immunity to what we’ve been immune to in the past may not be the case. And so what’s really important is that we have communities that are strong, and we all support each other. And we don’t allow ourselves to break down due to misunderstandings of culture.

So to answer your question, why is it important for me to be a Canadian? I’d say to look at what’s facing us and make sure that what we become something that we plan and what we want to be, versus a randomness or unplanned social outcome.

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

Hmmm. What does Canada 150 mean to me? Well it is kind of an arbitrary number. It’s kind of like when you buy a used car and it says 99,000 and it clicks over to 100,000 – it’s an arbitrary point in time. But it does give us a chance to sit back and do a historical reassessment. And also to start thinking about the future again; so it’s kind of like a birthday in a lot of cases. Time to celebrate, time to look at what you did, what was great, what wasn’t so great, and then talk about what’s going to happen in the future. I think that’s really all that Canada 150 really is.

And it’s kind of funny because 150 is practically no time at all. I told you my family came [to Canada] 117 years ago (laughs). 150 is just like the blink of an eye, if you think of countries like Egypt. How old is Egypt? (laughs) They probably have a good hard laugh at 150. It’s important to also keep a sense of humour about things. But in terms of a big celebration, I think what happened this week with Prime Minister Trudeau renaming National Aboriginal Day [to] National Indigenous Peoples Day, that’s a really important thing. Changing the name of the building that they’re in to Office of the Prime Minister and Privy Council, or something like that, versus the name of someone who was a harsh oppressor — but it does put B.C. in a really peculiar spot. Because 150 years ago our premier was Amor de Cosmos who was a famous racist. A famous racist. I’ll say that loudly. Amor de Cosmos. Famous racist. Particularly nasty against Indigenous people. I think Songhees [peoples] in particular, who I really love and admire. So I recall a really curious conversation I had with someone in government who was talking about how B.C. was going to celebrate 150 in terms of profiling Amor de Cosmos, and I was like, ‘well, you know, is this really the best person for us?’ And I think that some people might go, ‘Amor de Cosmos, he wasn’t the best but he was who was there.’ And one could say that about a lot of really nasty, noxious people. But I think it’s important for us to look at the wider context of where we were and celebrate people who led to us becoming a more tolerant, accepting country and province.

B.C. has been a famous place for racists for quite some time. And that’s nothing to celebrate, unless you’re going to do it in a mocking way, and I’m completely supportive of that.

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

I actually can’t really say. I mean I just said 150 is a really short span of time. But in the past 20 years, the world has developed so quickly. It’s really difficult to say what 20 or 150 years will be. Last week, Stephen Hawking pushed his doomsday clock forward from 1,000 years left of humanity to 100 years. So when a really smart guy like Hawking says our society, our species, has 100 years left, you’ve just pushed the clock to 50 years past our extinction. I don’t know whether I fully believe that, whether we’re going to be extinct in 100 years, but I think that the problems that we face as a country have a lot more to do with the problems we face as a planet. Curiously, way up at the top of the planet, we could be more immune to global climate change than other places, which only means we need to get really clear about what Canada’s role is going to be accepting people who come to us. And we have to be working globally [and] far more effectively than we can currently do with our current global state system. We’re far too vulnerable to really old political processes that are intended for a world without fast transportation and instant communication and global environmental devastation. We need to shift to some paradigm that works better.

Makes me sound like a Green candidate, doesn’t it?

That’s a pretty big question. It’s not easy. I don’t think you can ask it to anyone and they can get it right — there’s no right answer for people to get their head around what we’re going to look like in 150 years, I don’t think we’ll ever see as much change in the next 100 years in our human civilization. We’ve had the benefit of seeing slow change for a long time, but humans have this thing — because our lifespan is generally 70 or 80 years, we only understand change based on our own limited experience of 30 or 40 years at a time. I could tell you what Victoria looked like when my grandfather came as a little boy because he always told me, and he would point out large fields where now there’s sprawling shopping centres. And even Gordon Head, when I was a kid, was sprawling fields. Now it’s sort of tired out subdivisions. But change will happen globally, [regardless of] people who haven’t travelled a lot and [who] don’t understand what overpopulation looks like.

To read more interviews from the feature, click here