Canada celebrates its birthday along with the world


Canada is celebrating its 150th birthday in style, but not without controversy.

The Aboriginal people say they were here for thousands of years before Canada was formed – a name taken from the Aboriginal word Kanata, meaning a village – and that thousands of them were massacred, others were subdued and their lands were taken away.

European explorers came to North America to settle. The French say they established New France (Canada) in 1535 before the British came, around 1759 - and defeated them, seizing the country.

The country has a troubled, violent past and the Aboriginal people and French Canadians feel they continue to be wronged. Some French Canadians aim to wrench Quebec province away from Canada and make it independent but associated with Canada. However, most French Quebecers prefer to be a part of Canada while maintaining their language, culture and rights.

Canada’s beauty is that the contending parties learned to co-exist and created a country that keeps improving. The white bilingual and bicultural country became multicultural as people from all over the world made it their home.

Today it is a model – in the freedoms and living standards it provides its people and in its efforts to make the world more peaceful and just.

Canada’s 150th birthday included efforts to involve Canadians in all parts of the country in joint celebrations. Secondly, the world was invited to share its culture with Canadians and join the fun.

The National Gallery of Canada’s new galleries, for example, display art from the time humans came to this land thousands of years ago. Some 200 of the 800 artworks are Aboriginal dating back centuries.

It was on July 1, 1987 that Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario and Quebec became a self-governing dominion of Great Britain. Other territories came in and now Canada has 10 autonomous provinces and three territories. Its population, one million when European settlers arrived, has grown to 35 million.

Its achievements are impressive. When the US invaded Canada, it fought back and routed the invaders, with the help of Aboriginals. Now Canada and the US enjoy excellent relations. They remain different – the US with a presidential form of government and Canada with a parliamentary system. They trade extensively and Canadians and Americans cross borders with ease.

Canada, however, does not follow the US. It rejected American demands to cut ties with Cuba. It resisted US pressure to join the Vietnam War. It recognized Communist China when the US was maintaining that the Kuomintang regime represented China. It refused to develop nuclear weapons though it has the capacity to do so.

It spends comparatively little on defense, relying on US protection. The good relations between the two countries are exemplary.

To celebrate its birthday Canada invited other countries to join by showcasing their culture, products and history. Ottawa 150 offered free space for such displays calling it, Ottawa welcomes the world.

It began with Greece in March and will end with Romania in December. Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Culture and Information presented Saudi Cultural Days in September in cooperation with the Saudi Embassy in Ottawa. The festival demonstrated, said Ambassador Naif Bin Bandir Al-Sudairy, the Saudi traditions of generosity and hospitality. Sixty Saudis came to Ottawa for the festival, which included a tent, handicrafts, folk dances, music, arts, calligraphy, henna design, children’s corner and cuisine.

Today it is hard to believe that Canada is the same country that put a head tax on Chinese, turned back a ship with mostly Sikh and some Hindu and Muslim passengers, denied entry to a ship that carried Jews fleeing from a possible massacre by the Nazis, interned Canadian citizens of Japanese, Italian and other origins during the Second World War and restricted the entry of non-whites. Now it has had a black and an Asian as governor-general, one a refugee from Haiti, another from China. It has four Sikhs in the cabinet and two Muslims, one a refugee who became minister of immigration, citizenship and refugees.

Today it is perhaps the world’s most welcoming country. When the US barred Syrian refugees, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said they were welcome in Canada. He went to Toronto airport to greet the first batch, telling them, “Welcome to your own country.”

In today’s world of intolerance, injustices and violence such an attitude is unbelievable. Prime Minister Trudeau remains arguably one of the most progressive, broad-minded and compassionate of all world leaders.

Indian High Commissioner Vikas Swarup, who arrived some months ago, was asked at a function to describe his reactions to Canada. He spoke for many when he said that he found Canada a most open country. He said one day he peeped out of his office and saw Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson walking to a grocery store. Even more surprising, he once saw Prime Minister Trudeau riding a bicycle merrily like any other citizen.

Canada has its flaws but perhaps no Canadian will change it for any other country. As the national anthem says, “God keep our land glorious and free, O Canada we stand on guard for thee, O Canada we stand on guard for theeeeeee.”

-Mohammed Azhar Ali Khan is a retired journalist, civil servant and refugee judge.