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  • Writer's pictureRiisa Walden

#CancelCanadaDay: Reflecting on Accountability

As a national debate has emerged again this year over calls to #CancelCanadaDay, I’ve been thinking about the term “cancel culture” and how it is dismissively used to delegitimize calls for people and institutions to be held accountable for their words and actions.

Critics who lament the “cancel culture” in which we are living use this as an all-encompassing term that conveys the impression that calls for accountability in cases of wrongdoing are knee jerk, uncritically sound reactions rather than reasonable responses to discrimination and injustice.

We don’t live in a cancel culture. We live in a white supremacist, setter-invader, patriarchal, classist, ableist, sizeist, homo- and transphobic culture that valorizes Eurocentric and Christian worldviews and cultural practices. People who have been traditionally marginalized and oppressed within this culture along with their allies have the right to demand accountability even when this is to the chagrin of those who are satisfied with the status quo and quick to complain about “cancel culture.”

I think it is time we rebrand the concept of “cancel culture” as “accountability culture.”

When people call for a person, program, policy, or day to be “cancelled,” we need to think about this as asking ourselves, what is the appropriate way of holding an individual or institution accountable?

When a politician does not do what they promised or conducts themselves inappropriately, we have the option of voting this person out of office. When this happens, we don’t call this “cancelling” a politician. We simply accept the fact that voters have the right to hold politicians accountable for their actions or inaction by not reinstating them in a position of power.

People who take exception to “cancel culture” forget that others are entitled to seek accountability in places where the ballot box is not an option.

Figures in the media and heads of companies hold immense positions of unelected power. We elect them through our follows, likes, and by giving them an audience or consumer base.

When an entertainer is revealed in the past or present to have behaved in a reprehensible fashion, is it appropriate to continue providing financial gain and cultural capital to this individual or are there other entertainers whose perspectives and values better reflect our evolving culture and who are deserving of our time and money?

When a corporation exploits workers, supports oppressive values, or destroys the environment, is it not appropriate to spend our dollars supporting companies with more ethical business practices?

When the Catholic Church as an institution is unwilling to be accountable through papal apology or institutional transparency and cooperation by releasing records relating to residential schooling, is it appropriate to continue funding Catholic education systems in Canada? Having lost the moral authority to educate children, could the public funding received by Catholic School Boards not be better directed towards addressing the calls for funding outlined in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action?

Some Canadians are affronted by the idea of official or private Canada Day celebrations being cancelled. Some cannot seem to fathom why many people in Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities are deeply troubled by the idea of people celebrating national pride at a time of deep collective grieving and national reflection on the scope of the atrocities Canada has committed as a settler colonial country.

For people who find themselves upset by the call to cancel Canada Day, it may be helpful to think about the morality of this situation on a personal level.

When someone in your life who you care about is experiencing trauma and loss, what does it mean to celebrate in the face of their pain? Being supportive and sensitive in that time of grief doesn’t mean that you don’t ever get to celebrate again, but right now your celebration may be considered callous, thoughtless, and cruel. Moreover, it might suggest that you don’t actually care about the other person if you are behaving in a way that shows a disregard or lack of empathy for their suffering and how they are asking for your support.

“When we're talking about grieving, I think we're talking about not just the discovery of those little bodies in Kamloops and Saskatchewan, but you're grieving the loss of an ideology of what Canada's supposed to mean” (Angela White, CBC, “Amid calls to cancel Canada Day, historian says opposition to the holiday has a long history”)

For Canadians who are not listening to the grief and pain that is all around you right now, do you care about Indigenous peoples? Do you value the work of reconciliation? Are you interested in Canada and Canadians being accountable for their actions? If not, then your celebration of Canada Day symbolizes an entirely different national vision than one I hope to see moving into the future.

Claiming Responsibility

Sometimes when engaging in these conversations with other settler-Canadians, a common question emerges: “Why should I feel guilty for the actions of my ancestors over which I had no control?”

Occasionally this question arises from the fact that many settler-Canadians have complex relationships to how their ancestors arrived in North America along with their own historical and/or current experiences with systemic oppression and discrimination. In particular, however, I continue to be surprised at how prevalent it is for white Canadians of European ancestry to want to disavow any feelings of guilt or comparable emotion about the actions of our ancestors when our current, privileged position in Canada is contingent on historical and ongoing injustices.

Nonetheless, I find “guilt” a tricky term in this kind of discussion because we can’t really “do” anything with guilt other than feel it and acknowledge it. When entering into this type of discussion, I prefer to reframe the question of who should feel guilty in terms of responsibility. The concept of “responsibility” connects to the idea of “response” and speaks to our capacity to “respond” to current and historical injustices regardless of our inability to control the actions of our ancestors.

We are all capable of response, and the way in which we respond shows a lot about our values. Who is responsible for the historical and present injustices that are experienced by Indigenous peoples? My ancestors are responsible. My country is responsible. I am responsible.

Having acknowledged this responsibility, I can reflect on which actions I ought to take now in response to injustice.

What Can We Do Differently?

Calls to #CancelCanadaDay do not mean that this day must vanish from your calendar and psyche. Rather, they suggest that the way this day is marked ought to be different this year and moving forward.

The call and rationale for cancelling Canada Day is not new:

Idle No More is “once again calling on Indigenous land, water and sky protectors and allies to come together and disrupt the celebration,” offering suggestions for and a place to publicize alternative events that “honour all of the lives lost to the Canadian State – Indigenous lives, Black Lives, Migrant lives, Women and Trans and 2Spirit lives – all of the relatives that we have lost.” Find or post events in your community here.

They also remind potential organizers and participants of the importance of amplifying the voices of Indigenous people in these events:

“please ensure you are centring Indigenous leadership in your organizing efforts. If Indigenous people in your community are already planning something, please find ways to support their existing efforts.”

Back in 2017, the Canada 150 celebrations were met with many voices sharing alternative perspectives on Canada’s national day of celebration. This year, whether you are able to attend an anti-colonial event or not, there are many other ways to mark this day in a respectful and meaningful fashion. In using the upcoming Canada Day for reflection on Indigenous-settler relations, it would be a great time to read or return to the list of "150 Acts of Reconciliation for Canada's 150" developed by Crystal Fraser and Sara Komarnisky.

There is lots of great advice circulating (like this article from Alison Tedford "Here's what I want non-Indigenous Canadian families to do on Canada Day") to help people make an impact this Canada Day that can contribute to and sustain social transformation moving forward. If you are able, you may consider donating the money you would traditionally spend on your Canada Day celebrations to organizations by and for Indigenous peoples in Canada.

Most importantly, as Canada Day approaches, are you listening to what Indigenous people are saying they need and want on this occasion? If not, why?

Think about what being non-Indigenous and living here has meant and continues to mean for the First Peoples of Turtle Island. Respond to that reality and hold yourself accountable on July 1st and in the days and years ahead.

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