Canada Day 150: no need to choose between joy and lament, a maturing country does both

(The weekend of our Dollar Lake Camping trial was on the Canada Day weekend.  I left the campsite to lead worship at a Combined Musquodoboit Valley service in Meagher’s Grant. It struck me that our 150th Canada Day celebrations had a strange bipolar kind of feel to them compared to our 100th anniversary celebrations. This is the heart of the message I gave that day)

Do any of you remember the 1967 Canada Day celebrations?  I first became aware something consequential was happening that year when a funny little sign went on the mailbox of the rural farmhouse my Grandmother was renting.  I asked why it was there. She explained that the house was one of the early farm houses in the Port Robinson, Ontario area which earned it the designation of a “Century Home.” I was 8.

Later that year we started learning about Canada’s one-hundredth anniversary in school. There was even a song we were all expected to learn, “Expo 67 – Canada,” by Bobby Gimby. You can still find it on YouTube. Some of my classmates went to Expo. We could not afford such a venture since my Dad was only a corporal in the Air Force. Nonetheless, we took in the fire-works and attended all the local events that tiny Brighton, Ontario had to offer.

This 150th year celebration has a completely different feel. People are a lot crankier. Many are confused. There is a strange wondering about what it is we need to be celebrating and how we should do it.

At about the same time we celebrated Canada’s 100th anniversary, I learned there was no Santa Claus. To make matters more traumatic, the Tooth Fairy similarly became extinct. Horror and sadness ensued. When you believe in Santa Claus there is an irreplaceable naive kind of wonder and excitement on Christmas Eve. Heck, the excitement began in September when the Sears Wishbook catalogue came to the house and you had to very carefully think about what you could reasonably ask Santa to bring without seeming greedy enough to be put on the “naughty” list. When you find out that Santa does not exist, not only does Christmas Eve seem different, your parents, the season and your relationship with both seems irrevocably changed. Christmas means something totally different than you thought it did.

Then, you go deeper. You begin to think about the meaning at the heart of the Season. You begin to wonder about family connections, feasting and community. You begin to think about your responsibility to give presents to others, instead of just receiving them from large man’s magic red bag.  You discover the joy of gifting. None is possible unless you give up the fantasy of flying reindeer and the man in the suit. Still, every time a child learns there is no Santa Claus, you feel some pain as you watch their fantasy burst and you remember a little of your own confusion. You wish for a moment you could go back. That is how those of us who are non-Indigenous Canadians feel on this 150th anniversary of Confederation.

We do live in a wonderful country. Millions from all over the world want to come here. We also live in a Nation that has made mistakes, some of them horrific.  The country and its peoples are living through the continued healing of those mistakes. Our scripture reading today says that whenever someone offers welcome and cup of water to a thirsty person it is the same as offering Christ likewise. Since the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, we now know there have been times when expulsion was given instead of welcome. Indeed, expulsion of those who initially did the welcoming is part of the Nation’s heritage. Cups of water were stolen instead of being given to slake thirst. We cannot un-know. We cannot go back to naiveté and neither should we. For non-Indigenous peoples, accepting truth and working toward reconciliation, makes us deeper, more whole, faithful people. Ultimately, we become more capable of joy when we remember both Canadas: the parts of being Canadian that are worthy of celebrating as well as the parts that require lament.

I am the child of an immigrant who left the Netherlands after the devastation of the Second World War and 5 years of brutal German occupation. I grew up with the influence of those dreadful years and the story of being released from them. However, as anyone who has loved someone who lived through war, release is never total.

My father loved Canada. After he and his sisters arrived, wooden shoes and all, they settled into farming in Prince Edward County. His sisters married and moved into their own versions of Canadian life. Fate was not kind to his parents in their new land. His mother contracted Parkinson’s. At 16, my father did not feel called to be a farmer. His parents decided to go back to the Netherlands where extended family was handy. My father refused to go back. After his parents left, he made his way by working in factories and living in rooming houses. At 18 he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force, which he said was the making of him. He loved this new country. He was and is Canadian. I have always seen the country a little through his borrowed eyes.

My Dad perpetually wanted to do all things “Canadian.” When I was 8, Dad was transferred to Trenton, Ontario. My parents purchased their first home, a tiny farmhouse. No one, I mean NO ONE in Brighton, Ontario hunted moose. He did. He would go to Northern Ontario with some Airforce buddies and live for two weeks without washing. He always came back with a moose which was butchered and stored in a rented freezer locker. It lasted us the whole winter. I dreaded that anyone would find out in my class. We lived in Brighton for three years before we moved again and I thought I had safely navigated that secret. One day, a few short months before we moved, my teacher asked me to bring in some of my mother’s moose soup for “Pioneer Days.” She did it in front of the class which consisted of surprised farmer’s kids. The teasing was relentless. It was only when I moved to Newfoundland where moose hunting is an important cultural and culinary right that this memory was rehabilitated for me.

Our Dad dragged us all out to camp, hike and fish. My mother, who had spent much of her growing up years in serious poverty could not understand the point of camping. Dad took us on cross-Canada car camping trips. It was our responsibility, he insisted, to see and appreciate the land. I grew up with a hope for fresh-eyed appreciation. In these last couple of years have I begun to hear stories of confusion and wonder about his encounters as a member of the Armed Forces with Indigenous communities.

The Truth and Reconciliation process has made us all painfully aware of the terrible treatment of those of us who are Indigenous by those of us who are Non-Indigenous.  We feel weird about this particular 150th anniversary because of this awareness.  We feel conflicted because of the peculiar dichotomy of celebrating 150 years of history while pondering the treatment of those peoples who continuously respectfully lived on the land for over 10,000 years. We cannot forget this and we cannot un-know it. It even makes some of us really angry if it is mentioned on Canada Day.

Yet, we are a maturing people. We can do both. We can be joyfully appreciative and we can lament, seek reconciliation and work toward righting wrongs. That is what mature, healthy, spiritually whole people do. No one said it would be easy. It is easy to lie in your bed and wait for Santa to come and fill your stocking from the big, red magic bag. It is more difficult think of what people need in terms of gifts. It is much more taxing to plan a family celebration where all are truly welcomed. It is difficult to say you are sorry to relatives you know you have hurt and whom you must reconcile with in order for Christmas Day to be truly meaningful. Writing a wish list to a man in a red suit is simple. It is much more difficult to wonder how the bills will be paid and take responsibility for that.  Those Christmas times are the best of times where all the important, difficult things happen; people are fed, loved ones are reconciled and fiscal pain leads to simplicity. These become the deepest of times because thoughtful, loving people have cared enough to do the perplexing, arduous work. That is where we are with Canada Day. We are not celebrating the fantasy of 1967 with wild abandon again because that bubble has been thankfully burst. Instead we are expressing gratitude, wonder and also sometimes lament, pain and disquieting concern. Welcome to the post-fantasy Canada. Welcome to this wonderful, amazing, disturbing, unfinished Nation.

As part of my commitment to the Truth and Reconciliation Report, we will acknowledge the territory of every National Park we visit. There will be a separate “category” for it so it is easily found on the blog.


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