Debra Thompson is an associate professor of political science, Canada Research Chair in Racial Inequality in Democratic Societies at McGill University, and author of The Long Road Home: On Blackness and Belonging.
In early July of 1852, the abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass delivered one of his most famous speeches to nearly 600 people gathered in Corinthian Hall in Rochester, N.Y. Though he began his remarks by speaking about the wisdom, bravery and genius of the Founding Fathers, his tone soon turned. “Fellow citizens,” he asked of the mostly white audience, “why am I called to speak to you here today? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence?”
Douglass continued: “The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”
“What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?” he asked. And with that pointed question, Douglass struck at the heart of American hypocrisy during the era of slavery. The Declaration of Independence proclaimed the self-evident truth that all men were created equal and endowed with unalienable rights, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And yet the country had permitted and protected the institution of slavery since its very beginnings. To those Black people enslaved in the South, Douglass thundered, the national holiday revealed a gross injustice; the celebration was a sham. Shouts of liberty and equality were nothing more than mockery, deception and fraud.
In a different country and century, might we wonder the same about Canada? What, to the descendants of those who were enslaved, is the first of July? What awaits us if we ponder the meaning of Canadian pride and nationalism, not just for the descendants of Canadian slavery or the transatlantic slave trade, but any whose belonging in this nation hasn’t come readily or easily, or for whom the promise of inclusion and the rhetoric of multiculturalism have fallen short?
In this moment, it seems that many Canadians are rethinking what it means to be Canadian. In 2013, the General Social Survey on Social Identity found that Canadians’ main sources of pride were Canadian history, Canada’s armed forces, the health care system and the Constitution. More recently, the same question on the 2020 General Social Survey indicates our top sources of pride are now the health care system, the way democracy works and the social security system. Whereas 70 per cent of respondents were once “very proud” or “proud” of Canadian history, that number is now 48 per cent. Pride in Canada’s treatment of all groups has also dropped, to 48 per cent in 2020 from 56 per cent in 2013.
The asterisks now attached to pride in Canadian history and the country’s treatment of all groups come with good reason. The past several years have spotlighted endemic police violence that disproportionately targets and affects Black and Indigenous people; rampant anti-Asian hate crimes; and genocidal atrocities at the sites of former residential schools across the country. Last year, calls to cancel Canada Day reinforced that for many groups, and especially for Indigenous peoples, Canadian pride has been wielded as a weapon, our nationalism used to diminish the colonial underpinnings of Canadian history and disregard the endemic systemic racism of the present.
This Canada Day, the question arises once again: Is it possible to be truthful about our sordid past, critical of the present, and still remain hopeful for the future?
Douglass thought so. He was a relentless critic of American racism, but also a radical patriot who truly believed in American democratic ideals. So, too, did the prolific African-American writer James Baldwin, who wrote in Notes of a Native Son (1955), “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
But majorities don’t always see these critiques as a form of patriotism, or even as collective efforts to build a better future for us all. Here in Canada, recent research by Allison Harell, Keith Banting, Will Kymlicka and Rebecca Wallace demonstrates that majorities tend to view minority groups – immigrants, francophone Canadians and Indigenous peoples – as less committed to the country, and hence as less deserving of efforts to redistribute wealth, even when they are seen as genuinely in need and not responsible for the disadvantages they face. This conclusion speaks that which many racialized and Indigenous people already know: White (anglophone) Canadians are primed to see even the most well-founded, empirically based criticisms of Canada as un-Canadian.
Some even think these criticisms are, themselves, a threat to democratic stability. Quebec Premier François Legault, for example, has repeatedly refused to acknowledge that systemic racism exists in the province and has instead used the term “woke” as a disparaging slur. “For me, a woke is someone who wants to make us feel guilty about defending the Quebec nation, of defending its values as we did with Bill 21, of defending our jurisdictions,” he said last September, adding, “A woke is someone who sees discrimination everywhere.”
Of course, it wasn’t the “wokes” who, with the Canadian flag draped on every trailer truck, shut down the nation’s capital less than six months ago; a good reminder that “Canadian pride” hasn’t always been mobilized in the service of democratic politics.
It has been a year of political turmoil, and so perhaps the call for a more honest reflection of our nation hits a little differently now. But, as Yale historian and Douglass biographer David Blight points out, Douglass made his speech at an extraordinary moment of political turmoil: two years after the Fugitive Slave Act, on the eve of the 1852 presidential election, amid rising abolitionist sentiment and mobilization, nativist forces that had begun to coalesce in party politics, and seething tensions that had not wholly been abated by the political Compromise of 1850.
“From the round top of your ship of state,” Douglass warned, “dark and threatening clouds may be seen.” He noted that given the uncertainty of the times, some in his audience would encourage more moderation and persuasion and less passion and fury, lest he alienate those he sought to convert.
What Douglass knew then, and what remains true today, is that words left unsaid transform into deeds left undone. To paraphrase Douglass, a country that is false to the past will not only remain false to the present but will also solemnly bind itself to be false to the future.
I am not convinced, as Douglass and James Baldwin sometimes seemed to be, that the necessary critiques of and reflections about Canadian history and nationalism must come from a place of love for this country. To be blunt, not all of the searing criticisms levelled at Canada in recent years have been requests for inclusion into our country as it exists today. Instead, many critiques emerge from more radical demands that seek to unravel the status quo, unsettle what we think we know about who we are, and imagine an entirely different world. Black Lives Matter. No One is Illegal. Land Back.
Perhaps, instead, what binds us together – the critics, the patriots and the dreamers – is hope for what we might become. Douglass found hope in the thought that the U.S. was still young and impressionable in 1852. In 2022, there is, at the very least, hope that Canada is turning 155 and still, at times begrudgingly, learning.
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