It's July 4th which means that the United States is decked out in the red, white, and blue ready for the ultimately patriotic party. Here in Canada, only days ago we saw cities and streets shut down for celebrations and fireworks. People hung Canadian flags out of their cars and a painted maple leaf was seen on children throughout the country. It is a strange, strange social celebration of nation building. I just don't get it.
My least favourite super heroes are the ones that are fundamentally connected to their nationalistic pride, especially Captain America, especially in the early comic books. The blindly patriotic heroes never questioning their orders is so strange and foreign.
The assumption that the American/Canadian agenda is divinely driven is perpetuated throughout our media, news, and education system. Yet, both countries historically and currently continue to ignore their colonial pasts and blindly forget the First Peoples who currently live through the inter-generational trauma of those histories.
I am first generation Canadian but was born in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, a northern community with a large Aboriginal population. I am not a visible minority, you can likely tell by my name that I'm Irish. I did grow up defined by my Irish heritage, Irish dancing and playing soccer (football).
But by no means was St.Patrick's Day our favourite. We didn't hit the streets dressed in green, drinking green beer, talking about our culture standing above another. I usually did have to Irish dance at an event and believe me, I hated every moment of it, the dresses are hot and itchy.
Growing up in my family, my father talked about the poverty in Ireland and the lack of job opportunities that led him to the Canadian prairies. He talked about societal issues and religious clashes that made life difficult for my grandparents. We learned about the colonialism that put our ancestors on the frontlines of war and a lack of health care that sent my uncle, who lost his leg as a child, to England for treatment, splitting my family and causing the famous Irish grudges that still exist in my family which means some of my cousins have never met.
We talked about all of these issues around our supper table, but we never spoke about Canada, our new home, and its dark history that impacted our neighbours. I never really learned about the Aboriginal contributions to our country's history in school, besides who sided with the English and the French in the early days and a small chapter in my history book on the Riel Revolution. But every year, Canada Day was celebrated without question or context in my school and my community. I was dressed up and paraded around the school without ever understanding why I should be so proud of the maple leaf.
I've interviewed James Daschuk on a few occasions, especially for Meeting Ground, he is the author of Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life. His book should be required reading in Canada. It looks at a history that people are just starting to recognize after the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada the extent of horrors of the residential school system, federal policies, and experiments on nutrition when it came to Aboriginal people in Canada. As Daschuk said in a Globe and Mail op-ed "we are often shocked, but we really shouldn’t be surprised."
"Researching my own book forced me to reconsider many of my long-held beliefs about Canadian history. A professor of mine at Trent University once explained that Canadian expansion into the West was much less violent than that of the United States’, because in that country, 'the person with the fastest horse got the most land.' By contrast, in the Dominion’s march west, the land was prepared for settlement by government officials before the flood of immigrants," Daschuk said.
"What we didn’t know at the time was that a key aspect of preparing the land was the subjugation and forced removal of indigenous communities from their traditional territories, essentially clearing the plains of aboriginal people to make way for railway construction and settlement. Despite guarantees of food aid in times of famine in Treaty No. 6, Canadian officials used food, or rather denied food, as a means to ethnically cleanse a vast region from Regina to the Alberta border as the Canadian Pacific Railway took shape."
Behind the red and white is a history of government officials withholding food from Aboriginal people, forcing them onto reserves, trading freedom for food rations. Even once they were on reserve, the food rations continued and the food rotted in cities while the people on reserve starved and died from disease. At the same time, laws didn't allow people to leave those reserves to get their own food or trade for food with other communities, it was actually illegal. Before they could step off the land, the Indian Agent had to approve it, which was unlikely. In his book Dashcuk says the physical effects were almost immediate, the buffalo hunters went from the "tallest in the world" to sickly and barely surviving. Height is directly linked to malnutrition and you can still see it today in Canada's inuit being significantly shorter because of lack of nutrition and in North Korea, just a generation to two since the war they are significantly shorter than South Korea.
Also keep in mind as we celebrate Sir John A. Macdonald (with a lot of federal funds) that when he was acting as both prime minister and minister of Indian affairs, Daschuk explains "during darkest days of the famine, (Macdonald) even boasted that the indigenous population was kept on the 'verge of actual starvation,' in an attempt to deflect criticism that he was squandering public funds."
Why should I be so patriotic? Well, I am happy to live in Canada and I do love this country. I love the opportunity I am afforded but a lot of that is because I am first generation and not a visible minority. Instead of blindly being proud lets look to what our history means. It doesn't have to be depressing but our history and patriotism does have to be honest. We can cheer for team Canada in the Olympics or the FIFA Women's World Cup or during the national holiday and be excited by our future only as long as we recognize our past.
Daschuk said "perhaps we will come to understand the uncomfortable truths that modern Canada is founded upon – ethnic cleansing and genocide – and push our leaders and ourselves to make a nation we can be proud to call home."
And as our neighbours to the south celebrate Independence Day, they should also consider their history and what that means today.
In 2014 during a stop to a reservation President Obama called the "poverty and high school dropout rates among Native Americans 'a moral call to action.'"
About one-in-four American Indians and Alaska Natives were living in poverty in 2012 and since the number has grown.
In a country speaking about race relations, 2014 was a "bloody time for Native Americans" a MIC article proclaimed
From 1999 to 2013, Native Americans were killed by law enforcement at nearly identical rates as black Americans, tying them for the most at-risk populations in this respect.
In 2010 John T.Williams was shot by Seattle police because he was holding a carving instrument which was folded shut at the time of the shooting. It also led to a Tribe Called Red song.
The intergenerational trauma left by American federal policies on Native Americans is clear as well but also never heard as the stars and stripes hit the sky.
Native Americans have higher rates of disease, higher rates of death, and a lack of medical coverage. When it comes to drug abuse, they are higher than any other demographic group in the United States, especially when it comes to meth. Since the signing of treaties, relocation, and epidemics the population has significantly declined and Native Americans have lost more than 97.7 per cent of their land since the "American conquest", according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Once again I'm not saying don't be proud of where you are from and the opportunity that affords but don't be ignorant to the cost. Patriotism is "generally speaking, cultural attachment to one's homeland or devotion to one's country". Technically and logically speaking it is the First Peoples land but these holidays continue to be a time when they struggle more than any other population in North America. So while you get excited about shooting fireworks and decking yourself in the flag's colours maybe consider that if you are truly patriotic you should start thinking about original people on your land who today are finding it the hardest to be proud of being American or Canadian.
Kelly Geraldine Malone is a freelance journalist, podcaster, and radio producer based out of Manitoba, Canada