Canada 150 in London: The LYAC Reflects on Nation and Identity

This report details the LYAC meeting on the evening of December 10, 2015. The topic of the meeting was London’s position in the celebrations of the 150th anniversary of Canada’s confederation in 2017, though the topic soon expanded into Canadian identity. Lia Karidas, coordinator of London’s chapter of Canada 150, Andrea Halwa, executive director of the London Arts Council, and Cory Crossman, London’s music development officer, also joined the meeting. Adam Fearnall facilitated the discussion.

Who Should Read This?

  • People who want to be part of the conversation on how we should celebrate Canada

  • Basically, all Londoners!

Lia gave the group some context about her role. She works making connections between community groups and trying to connect groups where she sees overlap. The important thing for her is whether her committee has we covered all of their bases. It is easy for many events to happen in the core, but does everyone feel welcome to embrace the occasion? Adam decided to start the conversation broadly, asking the group: what is Canada? What are the stereotypes?

Here are some of the responses:

  • Canada as home, meaning freedom and safety

  • Canada as a nation slowly becoming Americanized in terms of culture

  • Canada as a large country founded on colonialism

  • Canadian culture as one that is polite, but in a way that is standoffish

Already there is apparent conflict in our relationship to Canada and our perception of Canadian identity. The next question came from Adam: are you proud to be Canadian? Skylar explained that she used to be more proud before the Stephen Harper government, and she finds that Canada has a bad reputation in terms of climate change, though she is still proud of Canada most of the time. Aside from Skylar’s answer, there was a significant silence, one of many that would form as the discussion probed into where we see ourselves in Canada.

Missing Voices and Icons

Adam told the group that he attended a conference to commemorate 150 years since the Charlottetown conversations. The event was attended by 100 young people from around the country. During the opening plenary two girls from indigenous backgrounds spoke to the conference to say they were not proud to be Canadian, because they wanted to be part of the conversation but were often excluded. Over the course of the conference, they came to feel proud of Canada, and they made a statement to that end as the conference closed. This recollection prompted Adam to ask: Who do you think is left out of the Canadian story? There was another silence before the group noted the lack of immigrant and queer stories in Canada’s official history.

Moving from official history to a more personal history, Adam asked: if you were marking the important milestones in your life in Canada, what would they be? Yet more silence followed. As aforementioned, the whole conversation to this point had been marked by long and awkward silences, and Adam picked up on the tension. He asked the group why national identity is such a strange conversation to have. One of the councillors explained that she always thinks that Canada can do better, and that it is hard to align yourself when there are new Canadians who find Canada free and prosperous while at the same time there is more work to be done.

Lia contributed that Canadian patriotism is not something she grew up thinking about, and that Canadian patriotism is not something that has an iconography specifically associated with it. She offered a question to the group: if you could assign an iconography to Canadian national identity what would that be? Adam added to the question by asking: is it important to assign iconography? The group noted that it is difficult to create icons without being stereotypical, particularly when the country is so young. The dichotomy between national pride and national shame was another issue. Canada does address some issues better than other countries but there are mixed feelings.

Your Canada: Present and Future

Once again, the room was thick with silence. Cory noted that the silence itself was reflective of Canada in that no one knows what to say, and that we do not seem to know who we are. Adam decided to make that question more personal. He asked the group to consider: Who are you in Canada? What is your aspiration for Canada?

Several people in the group spoke to their experience negotiating different cultural backgrounds:

  • Asala feels like she’s had a torn identity, being both Canadian and Libyan, and it has been a challenge for her as she often has a feeling of being an outsider in both places.

  • Lia interpreted herself in two different ways growing up. She explained that the Greek culture is a preservative culture and she grew up in an incubated environment.

  • Almas shared that her parents moved as refugees from Afghanistan and she is proud to be Canada, and shared that she can’t imagine the anxiety she would feel in the US. Referring to an earlier question, she added that when Justin Trudeau won the recent election it was a huge milestone for her as a Canadian.

Others spoke about identity related to region and geography:

  • Matt related that his parents thought it was important to explore the country, and so he found that his identity is tied to the varied geography and regions of Canada.

  • Emma explained that she has a strong identity as a Londoner, though she doesn’t strongly identify as Canadian. She does think about her position in Canada as one of privilege, and she noted that Canada often leans on its contrast with the US.

  • Cory said it was difficult to hear people be upset about Canada, and he wants Canadians to be proud. He notes that he has been privileged to have traveled and experienced the country and that has given him a deep connection to Canada.

  • Neale’s identity is tied to region she grew up in.  Her parents told her not to see herself as part of Canada as they held a specific idea of Canada that was contrary to their worldview.

There were still other conceptions of Canada and connection:

  • Lyndsey noted that much of her relationship to Canada is through media simply because the country is so vast.

  • Cedric doesn’t think about his status as a Canadian very often; He just sees himself as a person.

  • Andrea spoke to her experience traveling with the Canadian flag on her backpack. People would recognize her as Canadian, and for her it meant safety and welcome.

When it came to the aspirational part of the question, despite the difficulty many members of the group had placing their identity in Canada, the LYAC shared hope for the future of Canada, with some major themes:

  • Environmental protections

  • Multiculturalism truly in practice: equality and safety for everyone

  • Getting rid of Canada’s inferiority complex: seeing Canada’s “non-identity” as an identity

150 Years of Canada: London’s Place

The conversation circled back around to London’s place in the Canada 150 celebrations. In groups, the LYAC discussed what should be recognized in London in terms of communities, interests, places, spaces, cultures, and people. Here are some of the ideas that were discussed:

Places and Spaces

  • Bringing back Balloonfest: a hot air balloon festival

  • Including the smaller cities around London and celebrating London as a regional hub: events such as the Shunpiker Tour

  • Rowing on the Thames River

  • Having a walking festival downtown

  • Holding events at Boler Mountain

  • Having community campfires to bring people together

  • Involving Eldon House to host a historically accurate pre-Confederation party

Local Leaders

  • Steve Plunkett, who ran many local charitable events

  • The Labatt family and the other local breweries in London

  • Ferras Hayek, a major figure in the White Oaks Basketball project

  • London’s Town Crier Bill Paul, a popular figure in community events

  • Dr. Frederick Banting

Communities and Cultures

  • An event featuring pavilions representing multiple cultural communities

  • Creating communion between neighbourhood Canada Day celebrations

  • Involving London’s Francophone community

  • Involving London’s maker community to build something for the celebrations

  • Involving London’s strong community theatre scene

Interests and Experiences

  • Public art and art-making events

  • Geocaching involving objects that identify us as Canadians and Londoners

  • Having some sort of Golden Ticket event featuring local confectioners

  • Creating a “London Rewind” video

  • Creating a Humans of London Ontario series themed around the 150th anniversary

A final category, “crazy” ideas, included London’s Year of Rest, a year-long holiday for the city of London, as well as solid gold plaques for everyone born in 2017. As the brainstorm came to a close, so did the evening’s meeting.

Personal Stories

When we were speaking about how to celebrate Canada and the missing voices in Canada, Adam shared a story of a time when he went to a First Nations reserve for Canada Day. Adam explained that he felt Canadian in the stereotypical ways as he was celebrating in the wilderness in Northern Ontario, while at the same time he never felt less Canadian, because the people there did not necessarily self-identify as Canadian because the government is not looking out for them. Nicole added that she had been in Quebec for Canada Day before and there was a different atmosphere there too. As the meeting went on it became even more apparent that Canadian identity is not a nationwide default by any means.

Big Questions

  • What is a nation, and what does it mean to identify as part of a nation?

  • What are some of the ways in which we form our identity?

Reporter’s Notes

This was a difficult meeting for many of the group, evidenced by the many silences. Questions of nation and identity can be extremely difficult to answer in a couple of sentences, and it was apparent that there were many different responses generated from the huge variety of life experiences in the room. From identities caught in a tug-of-war between cultures, to identities rooted in the connection to physical geography, the meeting revealed some of the many ways we come to know ourselves. I answered Adam’s questions as well, and I fumbled with my answer because I too have an uncertainty about how I identify with Canada, though I related to Lyndsey’s comment about relating to Canada through media. Media in Canada is important me, particularly when we have a public broadcaster that has the potential to represent so many different cultures and regions. When it came around to my aspiration for Canada, I spoke about representation in media. Hopefully in the celebrations of Canada 150 here in London, we can see London’s media scene involved as a crucial tool for representation and inclusion.

Things We Still Need to Learn

  • We spoke about the Francophone community in London, a community which may not be as well-known in the city. What other communities are there that we don’t typically consider in the fabric of London, and how can we make connections with those communities?