O Canada: A Work In Progress

There is no place on earth like Canada – the land of the free. Canada is perfect for anyone seeking a life of relative tranquility, peace, freedom, equality and opportunity. That’s why more people immigrate to Canada – 250,000 per year approximately – than almost anywhere else on the planet. Canada is the second largest land mass on the planet, blessed with plenty of water and magnificent lakes, rivers and mountains. Its people are resilient given the harsh winters, yet caring, compassionate and mostly respectful of one another.

Yet Canada continues to be a work in progress – having progressed and sometimes regressed over the last 150 years since nationhood. We should celebrate but not be satisfied that our work is done. Our national shame is our treatment of the indigenous community. Canada is a first world nation, but within Canada there are indigenous people who are worse off than people living in third world countries. According to Scott Gilmore in Macleans, indigenous communities have an “unemployment rate worse than Sudan… and infant mortality rate worse than Russia.”

I was shocked to learn “there are 89 communities without safe drinking water;” that “the murder rate is worse than Somalia’s and the incarceration rate is the highest in the world;” and that “a child is more likely to be sexually assaulted than to graduate high school.” According to an RCMP report, 1,017 indigenous women and girls have been murdered in Canada between 1980-2012 – a homicide rate roughly 4.5 times that of all women. How can this possibly be in our beloved Canada?

Our country is great, but it’s taking us awhile to reconcile with the past and fix the present. It was not until 2008 that then Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized for the dreadful residential school system that destroyed many lives. In fact, only last week on National Aboriginal Day did Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announce that the name of the building which houses his office would change from Hector-Louis Langevin – the architect of the residential school system – to the “Office of the Prime Minister and Privy Council.”

While we are strong and free, this was not always the case for everyone. It is hard to believe indigenous peoples – the originals on this land – were only given the right to vote federally in 1960.  As difficult to comprehend today, the disturbing “Chinese Exclusion Act” was repealed in 1947 granting Chinese-Canadians the right to vote in federal elections. Fifty-one years after Canada’s confederation in 1867 – the “Women’s Franchise Act” was passed permitting all women to vote in federal elections. But it was not until 1929 that Canadian women were declared to be “persons under law.”

Some Canadians certainly noticed and tried to beat down the prevalent racism and inequality in this country. Canada was forced into introspection when it signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1947. Our greatest achievement from a human rights perspective was that it was crafted by Canadian John Peters Humphrey – an opportunity for Canada to truly become the land of the free. The declaration was signed only a year after most Canadians said they opposed Jewish immigration. Who could forget that Canada would not give refuge to Jewish immigrants trying to flee the Nazis between 1933-1945 and how it refused entry to the St. Louis, a ship carrying 907 German-Jewish refugees in 1939.

The horrible internment of over 20,000 Japanese in 1942 and the continuous legacy of the “Chinese Head Tax” beginning in 1885 give us pause. Canada’s consciousness began evolving when in 1971 the Federal Government introduced Multiculturalism as a policy of acceptance of ethnic identity. Things progressed from there. In 1977 the Canadian Human Rights Commission was established and in 1982 the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was introduced.

In 1985 people like Jim Keegstra could no longer promote hate against Jews. Women were required to be fully integrated into regular and reserve Canadian Forces in 1988. In 1990 Sikhs were permitted to wear turbans while in RCMP uniform. In 2005 the Civil Marriage Act was passed making same-sex marriages legal in Canada and in 2006 the Prime Minister apologized in the House of Commons for the Chinese Head Tax. Canada must still endeavour to correct the injustice of its indigenous population, and this began in 2008 with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

For all of our gains, lately it feels like we still have to continue fighting to ensure Canada remains strong and free. Let’s proudly celebrate our birthday – and pray that “G-d keep our land glorious and free.”

About the Author
Avi Benlolo is the former President and CEO of Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies (FSWC), a Jewish non-profit human rights organization. Avi is a prominent Canadian human rights activist dedicated to promoting tolerance, freedom, democracy and human rights.