I was driving through the Rocky Mountains in 1997 and stopped at a little shop to buy a guidebook. Among the hiking-trail maps and postcards was a map I’d never seen before – familiar, but also different. At first, it looked like a jigsaw puzzle map of North America, with odd shapes and colours. But it was actually a map of North America before “first contact,” with all the aboriginal nations represented as countries.
Even though it couldn’t be literally accurate – many nations were nomadic and most had no defined borders – it was a strikingly effective representation of the scale and diversity of the continent’s original nations. In fact, according to the legend notes, there were scores more nations, so many they couldn’t be fitted onto the map.
The diversity didn’t exist only in the millennial past. There are more than 50 distinct aboriginal languages in Canada. The nations of the grasslands are different from the woodland nations, and the Northwest peoples are distinct from the coastal cultures. The Métis are woven into our national fabric. In the North, Inuit culture has survived for millenniums.
Our relationship was established almost 500 years ago, when Jacques Cartier sailed up the St. Lawrence River – a journey that eventually led to the earliest settlers. For three centuries after that, the relationship between Europeans and aboriginal nations was one of equals – in fact, there would have been no opening of the interior to trade, no settlement of the west, without their active collaboration. In the past 200 years, however, we have whittled a continental galaxy of nations into an archipelago of isolated, sometimes destitute, enclaves.
In 2017, Canada will mark the 150th anniversary of Confederation. Those of us who remember the 1967 Centennial will recall the explosion of pride and creative energy released by that anniversary. The lead-up to the 2017 sesquicentennial will bring moments of pride and reflection, too – we’ll mark the anniversary of the War of 1812, the 100-year anniversaries of Vimy Ridge, of Passchendaele, of women winning the right to vote. The five years leading to 2017 will give us occasion to reflect on how we became who we are.
The Confederation project has been a social and political success that has created a country out of two different languages and nationalities, French and English, replenished by constant waves of immigrants and refugees. It has become a model of national civility between differing peoples.
But there’s one major uncompleted task in this project, one failure to become whole. As we meditate on who we are in the next five years, we should consider setting ourselves a goal that’s worthy of a generation.
The five years leading to Confederation saw the great debates that stirred the ideas for union, and the Charlottetown and Quebec conferences that set the framework for a national accord. The five years leading to 2017 could lay the foundation for the next chapter – the missing chapter: the resolution of the treaties and the beginning of reconciliation and reconstruction with our aboriginal peoples. It’s the civil-rights movement of our generation.
The Confederation project is incomplete. As we approach our 150th anniversary as a nation, and as we prepare to celebrate who we are, there’s still time to imagine who we could become.
Mark Starowicz, who heads CBC TV’s documentary unit, received the Order of Canada for the television series Canada: A People’s History . The newest series from that team is 8th Fire: Aboriginal Peoples, Canada and the Way Forward .