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Look away from the giant duck, and listen to real concerns over Canada 150

You would need a heart harder than the Canadian Shield to object to the arrival of the world's largest rubber duck in our waters to celebrate the country's birthday. The 12-storey-high bit of whimsy is expected in Toronto's harbour on July 1, as part of a waterfront festival marking Canada 150. Politicians in Ontario have fought for the past week over who pays this duck's bill.

Me, I'm on Team Duck, if only because it presents us as such goofballs on the increasingly dark international stage, like Harpo Marx in a cast of Iagos. Consider the current state of the world, and its many miseries. North Korea has missiles that it aims menacingly at neighbours; America has severed its ties to the rest of the civilized planet and is now hurtling nihilistically into the eye of the sun; Brazil is consumed by a political scandal you would need a doctorate to understand. Meanwhile, we are fighting over an overfed bath toy. I think this says something hopeful about our country.

Of course, that's the sunny side of our national myth, the good-news story we tell ourselves. Many Canadians will choose to be in a party mood this July 1, setting off fireworks, annoying the neighbours by playing Nickelback, perhaps participating in a giant Snakes and Ladders game in Calgary. There will be vast, candy-striped amounts of fun to be had, if you choose to ignore the parts of the country – the substantial parts – where July 1 will not be considered a day of celebration. For those parts of the country, what happened 150 years ago was not the birth of something wonderful, but the end of something even more wonderful – the end of a way of life. And the beginning of a new reality that was grim, painful and murderous.

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Read more: Giant rubber duck for Canada 150 a waste of taxpayer money: Ontario PCs

I was thinking about this while watching some of the speeches delivered during Walrus Talks' recent tour of the country to mark the sesquicentennial, in which thinkers and activists and artists were asked to address the bland statement, "We desire a better country." The responses to that statement were anything but bland, especially from Indigenous artists, as the tour moved across the country (you can watch all the speeches, which are quite short, on YouTube, and they'll also be broadcast on the CBC).

Why, for example, are we even celebrating 150? As Inuk filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril said, describing her conflicted relationship with Canada, "Every single time I see a Canada 150 logo I want to take a Sharpie and add a couple zeros to the end of it. It's Canada 15,000 – get with the times. Asking me to celebrate Canada as being 150 years old is asking me to deny 14,000 years of Indigenous history on this continent."

I like her suggestion for improving Canada and its relations with its Indigenous people: Sever the ties to the monarchy, she said, and have the Governor General "for evermore be an Indigenous representative of the land, sea and sky." Only by thinking in this way can we start to have 1,000-year plans for Canada, she said, instead of the short-sightedness of the five-year schedules that currently constrict our imagination. In his talk, architect Douglas Cardinal called for a repeal of the Indian Act: "We have to understand that everyone on this land has to have their freedom of expression and their rights to our mother, the earth." And in hers, Anishinaabe kwe educator Jessica Bolduc talked about how she'd lost her hereditary language, and that there should be a path for her to regain it, as easily as people are taught English or French.

"It should not be a surprise to Canadians that few Indigenous people will be celebrating the 150th anniversary this July": That's from the launch of Canada Reads: the Unsettling Canada Edition, another initiative intended to spread knowledge of the country's birthright beyond tall ships and Fathers of Confederation. This project by a group of Indigenous activists calls for July 1 to be a National Day of Action "to celebrate our Indigenous and human rights to self-determination, our lands, territories, and resources." Its summer reading recommendations include Unsettling Canada: A National Wake-Up Call by Arthur Manuel and Grand Chief Ronald Derrickson, and the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

For up-to-the-minute context, you could add to that reading list recent comments made by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, which criticized the Canadian government for failing in its commitments to the health of Indigenous children and youth. The tribunal made its remarks earlier this week, just in case this all seems like ancient history. In case it's not clear that history lives with us every day.

What does all this mean for July 1? I'm not sure, but I am very curious to see. We might be having one uncomfortable party this year, but that seems fitting somehow. "Canada: welcome to the uncomfortable party." That could be our motto for the next 150 years, if we're fortunate enough to exist for that long.

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An Ontario government grant of about $120,000 is going toward a rubber bird for Canada 150 celebrations. The duck stands six stories tall and weighs upwards of 13,000 kilograms.
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