A critical look at Canada 150: John Lutz

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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.

John Lutz | Chair of the History Department

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

What does it mean to be Canadian? It’s interesting — I’m working on a project right now on Canadian symbols, also for Canada 150, looking at how certain symbols became the symbol of a nation. And the one I’m actually working on is totem poles, which is sort of an unlikely symbol for Canada, if you think about it, because it only comes from a very small part of Canada. And it becomes a symbol in the 1920s and 30s at a time when First Nations are considered to be dying out and primitive peoples. And, you know, so it makes me think about how as a nation our identity is assembled around a series of symbols [and] we attach ourselves to a series of symbols that make us Canadian. So many people will say, ‘well what’s distinctive about Canada is our safety net and our MediCare.’ And yeah, that’s right, but I think those things aren’t as much symbols as they are programs or reality for people. Other nations have better healthcare than we do, other nations have better social safety nets than we do. Of course, others have worse, too, and that’s what we compare ourselves to; but I think to be Canadian is to be attached to a series of ideas and symbols that are all drawn from a common basket — but we draw different symbols from that basket.

There’s a limited number of symbols, but we all choose the symbols. There’s enough ambiguity in a lot of these symbols, and there is enough flexibility in these symbols, that people of diverse political views, of diverse ethnic backgrounds, and religious and sexual orientations can oftentimes find symbols to attach themselves to.

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

Well it’s an opportunity, really, and, as a historian, I love any opportunity to talk about our past. And so it’s funny how we get attached to these decade-long digits: 10, 20, 30, 50, 150 anniversaries. 150 is no different than 151 or 149 in terms of the relevance of the number of years that have passed, but, since as a society we seem to love these kinds of anniversaries, as a historian it offers a great opportunity to bring the past into the present and look at how the past has shaped and is shaping our lives. The reason why I’m a historian is I don’t think you can change the present or the future without understanding how we got here. And so Canada 150 offers an opportunity to change the future by looking at how we got to where we are and saying, ‘let’s make some choices about where we go from here.’

So, you know, I was listening to a debate on CBC yesterday: three people [spoke] about whether they were celebrating Canada 150 or not. One of the interviewees has been in Canada 20 years [having moved] from India — he was definitely celebrating Canada. Another was a settler who had been [here] her whole life, and who had recently become aware, I guess, of Canada’s historical injustice to First Nations and she was not going to celebrate Canada Day. And the third person is the president or CEO of REACH, which is a foundation that gives out awards to First Nations exemplary educators, I think, and they raise money for First Nations education. And she finds things to celebrate, as well as things to [criticize]. I think her view and my view is sort of the same.

You don’t have to look at the past to celebrate; in fact, that’s not why we look at the past. At least [for] most academics that’s not why we look at the past. We look at the past to learn lessons for the future; there are some very positive lessons in our past and there are some very negative lessons in our past. It’s a simple-minded question about whether or not you should celebrate Canada Day, because there are so many things to celebrate and so many things to commemorate but not celebrate.

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

I think we have, you know, major issues to sort out in the next 50 to 150 years. You know, I suppose the one that will be life-defining is how we manage climate, and how our neighbours around the world manage climate. So it seems to me that survival is the first priority. And then beyond that, to social life in Canada, I would like to see is carrying on a path I think Canada is on as much as any country is, a path to really living up, I guess, to the Declaration of Human Rights, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the idea that the word ‘Canadian’ embraces Indigenous people, it embraces immigrants, it embraces people of different gender identities and sexual orientations, it embraces disabled people and a long list of people who have been marginalized because they didn’t fit the white Anglo-Saxon model in the past.

I think as a nation, one of our fundamental challenges is coming to terms with the fact that we’re essentially an occupying nation on Indigenous land, and how I’d like to see that dealt with in the next 150 years is recognizing that the immigrant-settler culture has basically taken the economic base away from First Nations and left them in a state of, essentially, poverty and social disorganization. And if there’s going to be true equality and reconciliation in Canada we have to acknowledge that First Nations need an economic base, a land base, a resource base. In order to both acknowledge the thefts of the past, but also to break the cycle of dependence, poverty, and social dislocation that that theft has caused.

Whether or not we should celebrate Canada Day … I think there’s a tendency among people — we’ll say on the progressive end of the spectrum —  to look at the shortcomings, of which there are plenty, and not to look at the blessings and the bounty … I think being a historian gives you some perspective of — first of all, I can see how far we’ve come as a nation in the last 150 years. I mean, we are a different nation for sure than we were then, and we’re a different nation than we were 50 years ago, we’re a different nation than we were 20 years ago, and although there is some tendencies in all directions, I guess mostly I see progressive direction in term of the areas I’d like to see change. And then when I compare Canada to how the rest of the world is managing some of the same challenges around race, ethnicity, religion, I don’t see a country that’s doing better at the moment. I mean, there are parts of the world, there are regions, there are certainly neighbourhoods that are inspiring, but I can’t think of a country anyway that’s managing the tensions that Canada has to manage as well. So that’s something really to celebrate.

I’m going down to the legislature this afternoon to watch what I expect will be the government fall, and I think that’s just an amazing thing — that [collapse] will happen peacefully, [and] orderly. There are constitutional rules that have been established that will be followed, and if you compare that even to an American election or to a French election or a British election, it’s in some ways a miracle how well we in Canada manage those kind of differences and transitions.

To read more interviews from the feature, click here.