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Canada 150

As Canada turns 150, Denise Balkissoon reflects on how her perceptions of this country have changed, and what it taught her

This story is part of The Globe's coverage of Canada's sesquicentennial.

It's easy to forget, but the Earth is a physical thing, a bright blue ecosystem making a little circuit in an enormous dark space. So a country is also physical, a three-dimensional body of water, plants and dirt, with wounds and curves and a distinct, recognizable profile. Canada is an intensely physical country – huge, green, rocky and wet – but I am new to appreciating this. Until fairly recently, I mainly considered a country a set of ideas: you know, rights and freedoms, crime and punishment, allocation of resources and trying to squeeze into the international spotlight. Vistas and vegetation do not come naturally to me, and for a long time I was totally fine with that.

I was born in downtown Toronto and mostly raised on its northeastern edge. My Canada is urban. Bush land is not something I instinctively liked, not in Trinidad, where using my grandparents' open-air shower upset me, and not here, where I took my first real canoe-and-portage camping trip in my 20s, waking up hungover in a tent with a mottled landscape of mosquito bites on my forehead. A body's vulnerabilities are hard to hide in the wild, and so I preferred to live largely in my head.

Cities are what I understand and urban Canada is my home: Vancouver and Montreal, which are fun to visit; Ottawa, where I went to university; Edmonton and Hamilton, which are under-appreciated; but mostly Toronto. I understand spaces full of strangers, public transit, free Wednesday evenings at the art gallery, and sucking up to medical receptionists. I understand the high ideals and constant failings of multiculturalism, and have strategies for coping with the reality that while all flatbreads might be created equal, all skin colours are not. Cities are physical too, of course, but in a human-dominant way that I can navigate. Toronto is like a part of my own body, with good hair days and sore zit days and everything in between.

The closest I got to considering the physicality of countries was thinking about borders, which are ideas about how imaginary lines should be imposed onto a real space, followed by vigorous attempts to police them. It's weird that invisible borders breed cultures, but they do, and one thing that I've always known is that Canada is not the only way a country can be.

Steam rises from Lake Ontario in front of the skyline during extreme cold weather in Toronto. Denise Balkissoon grew up in Toronto.

When I was four, my dad worked for Bell Canada and took a contract to help develop telecommunications in Saudi Arabia. We moved to a compound in Riyadh that was surrounded by concrete walls that my mother, the only one of seven sisters to attend university, couldn't exit without a man. To prevent a mass exodus of bored Canadian wives, Bell gave employees a lot of paid vacation. We visited our relatives in Canada, Trinidad and the United States. We went to France, Holland and Germany, where my dad became enamoured of the autobahn; Monaco, Cyprus and Greece, where a jewellery store owner gave me a charm to ward off the evil eye; and Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore, which is my mom's second favourite place on Earth, after Banff. Somehow, my brother Ian's passport got filled before mine did, so another passport was attached to the back with an official red wax seal. Mine was cool, but his was better, and I'm still jealous.

As a child, I had more freedom in Riyadh than my adult mother, and took a bus every morning to attend international school. My classmates were Lourdes from the Philippines, Erin from England, Raymond from Hong Kong, Jeannette from maybe Switzerland, Kanak from India and another kid from India with persistent bad breath. My first crush was a white American boy (obviously) named James Smith (obviously) who I'll never be able to find on Facebook. Everyone was different, and that was normal. This was true even in the Canadian compound, where I adored a Quebecoise with golden-brown curls named Marie-France, and suffered a broken heart when her mom decided she'd be better off at a French school.

My point is that, even with a child's understanding of the world, I always knew that Canada was one idea of many: Better than Saudi, where my mom couldn't drive, but not necessarily superior to Germany, where my dad could drive really fast. And as I experienced it, multiculturalism at a private school in Riyadh seemed much more equal than multiculturalism at a public school in Toronto.

Though I have a Canadian passport accepted around the world, that doesn’t mean I am accepted as Canadian.

On Pizza Day in Grade 6, a blonde girl made fun of me for asking if one pie could be ordered without pepperoni (my mom was raised Muslim, and at that time I didn't eat pork). In high school, we had a Slave Day, when students could "buy" other students to do their bidding, with proceeds going to the United Way. In university, someone told me a "joke" about why "there were Black people in America, and French people in Canada," the punchline being that "they got to pick first." During my first job as an editor, a reader wrote in to criticize the ethnic homogeneity of a photograph of 30-odd former interns, a group that was all white plus me. This was brought up at a meeting (which was all white, plus me) during which I suggested that it might be desirable for the masthead to represent the place where we lived. I was told that our job wasn't to "represent" anything, but to "sell magazines."

No, none of these are mortal wounds, but they do broadcast who's in charge here. My Canada has always been a place where the idea of white Anglophone superiority is driven home with consistent ferocity. Though I have a Canadian passport accepted around the world, that doesn't mean I am accepted as Canadian. I used to internalize that rejection, fuelling my travel with a desperate longing for a new home. That phase is over now. I know that I belong to this place, and I've become used to asserting that.

Between my global views and my local wounds, I consider my citizenship a lucky penny with a tarnished side. Canada was, without a doubt, a good place to be born. I have had a safe and comfortable life here. But I refuse to be endlessly grateful to anyone other than my parents. The comfort I live in is no more than I deserve, since housing, health care and education are basic human rights, and hardly guaranteed to every person born in this country. And that comfort comes with a price, anyway. It requires me to know my place, refrain from challenging it, and help maintain an often unjust order – one built on an illusion of equality and opportunity.

In today's Canada, poor immigrants are given temporary passcards to pick vegetables and take care of babies, or put into jails euphemized as "detention centres." Rich immigrants are required to pay up and then immediately criticized for making things unaffordable. Our supposed tolerance seems not to include my Muslim relatives: though they, too, participate actively in democracy, enjoy hockey and give six per cent of their salaries as zakat, some say their "Canadian values" just aren't good enough. Their simple existence might get them murdered.

This hierarchy of belonging is inconsistent and slippery, but at its core it concerns the physical space that is Canada. It's an idea about who gets to lay claim to the land, and in what ways. First, though, it requires conceding that history began in 1867. Canada is a place that wants to slice out a tiny segment of time – one as arbitrary as any border – and put it in a perpetual freeze-frame. The country's collective memory begins 150 years ago, when the Dominion came into being, and gets fuzzy around 1982, when the Constitution was repatriated from Britain.

A quick recap: the loss of the 1980 referendum has quieted separatists in Quebec. The new Charter of Rights and Freedoms contains a section on "aboriginal and treaty rights" (but what exactly those are remains vague and undefined). A massive wave of immigrants helps reinforce the idea that having non-white skin in Canada is a novelty (it's not): these newcomers are pretty optimistic, because Pierre Trudeau keeps saying "multiculturalism."

The possibilities are endless, the future looks promising, the mood is high – and there is no real challenge to white Anglophone power. That's the idea of Canada many people would like to bronze, for keeps.

Since then, those good intentions have been abandoned – that is, if they were ever real to begin with. I've been having a series of realizations that, as I approach my 40th birthday, makes me feel particularly dumb. One is that exercise feels good. Another is that getting outside in true wilderness repairs the soul. The biggest and most stupefying is the breadth, depth and force of anti-Indigenous sentiment in this country, as well as how hard Canada has tried to mask that, and the shame and frustration that this erasure worked on me. It doesn't seem coincidental that my growing knowledge of this history is dovetailing with my growing appreciation of non-urban Canada. Just as I began to love swimming in lakes, I began to contemplate exactly whose lakes they are. I've become a person who books campsites in February and wants to learn how to steer a canoe. I've also become a person with endless questions about what my extremely blessed life in this country has cost other people.

Canada is a contradiction, a place where my mother was gifted an extra decade of life in the form of excellent, almost free cancer treatment, yet no money can be found to care for the mental health of Indigenous youth. Back to the mind/body split: this inequality is about ideas, like which level of government is responsible for providing whose health care, and those ideas play out in physical space. My mom lives down here, where services are plentiful and her middle-class family has the confidence to press doctors for answers. Jolynn Winter and Chantel Fox, two Oji-Cree 12-year-olds who killed themselves this winter, lived up there, where a fly-in sex abuser taught generations of rural people that no one cares what they have to say.

Ideas are elusive: what's solid is whether we can breathe the air and drink the water in the place where we are

In the summer of 2015, as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report unspooled the horrific legacy of Canada's residential schools, I was reading the novel The City and The City by the punk sci-fi author China Miéville. It's about two separate city-states that exist in the same physical space, where inhabitants are socialized under penalty of law not to see each other. Now, Miéville has cautioned that the book is not about settler colonial societies. Specifically referencing Israel and Palestine, he has said that he doesn't believe people are invisible to each other in settler states: instead, he thinks, the dominant group finds the other hyper-visible, and offensive. This is true of Indigenous and Black people in Canada, who are incarcerated and put into foster care at indefensible rates largely because the state can't stop staring at them, determined to make them into something else or eliminate them.

But still, the way that the citizens of Miéville's fictitious Besźel and UI Qoma come in and out of focus to each other resonates personally. That summer, I was driving to a (white) friend's cottage on Lake Erie. It's on the territory of Six Nations of the Grand River, which includes places like Caledonia, Ont. A bit out from the road, in the middle of some tall grass, I noticed a sign featuring what I saw as "Indigenous art" and advertising a helpline for native women coping with violence. I had driven by at least five times before, but this was the first time I registered that sign. And I felt, physically, the intense individuality of my lived experience of space, and how the same small bit of Earth could be utterly different for different people. In the language of The City and The City, I had experienced a breach. And, as in Besźel and UI Qoma, unseeing is almost impossible. It's not an idea, but a truth: I'm a citizen of a place that was laid right on top of another.

After half a lifetime of ignoring the outdoors, Denise Balkissoon has begun to interact with it. Here she is in 2009 in Algonquin Park.

Absorbing this requires a full reconsideration of the idea of Canada, a country born in 1867 when Mother England began weaning her unwieldy brood. It demands learning some of the ideas of Turtle Island, a common name for North America used by many Indigenous peoples. On one hand this is easy, because many Indigenous thinkers and artists remain exceedingly generous, despite the way this country still treats them. On the other, it's not, since approaching any centuries-old body of knowledge is daunting. So I'm starting by following up on one common refrain, which is that it's all comes back to the land: not in a mystical, romanticized way, but in a practical, respectful way that incorporates the human spirit. To figure out where it is that I live, both brains and brawn will be required.

And so, after half a lifetime of ignoring the outdoors, I've begun to interact with it. My enthusiasm increases with each transcendent encounter (and with every new skill in my knapsack). Last summer, I heard the call of an unseen loon flying through the velvet sky of a Kawarthas night and collected smooth, striped rocks on the shore of Lake Erie. I accepted the humility of the thunderbox, and swam out, out, out into a crystal Muskoka river. My ideas about what Canada is aren't exactly solid, but the Earth under my feet is, so far.

The inescapable fact about both minds and bodies is that neither lasts forever. North America has been stable for a couple of centuries, sure, but empires rise and empires fall, we all know that. Borders are just ideas: ask the Inuit, whom Canada largely ignores, until it needs a placeholder somewhere in the contested north. Ask the residents of the Falklands Islands, a.k.a. Islas Malvinas, another tiny place with two different names. Ask the Tohono O'odham Nation, which straddles Arizona, U.S. and Sonora, Mexico, and has said it will refuse to allow the passage of Donald Trump's racist wall. If the fragility of a country's ideas of itself were ever in question, our southern neighbour keeps offering up more proof.

Ideas are elusive: what's solid is whether we can breathe the air and drink the water in the place where we are, whether our lustful appetite for hydrocarbon corpses is worth a sweaty and uncontrollable world. Even if this country lasts until the end of the Earth, that time will come, sooner or later. All bodies will die. And one thing I want to do in the time I have left in mine is embrace the fullness of this physical place, from glaciers and tundra to rocks and trees and many, many, many more lakes.

Canada is a beauty queen, and she doesn't serve me, but I her. In the wilderness, the world feels ancient, and it's clear that 150 years is not a long time.