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  • The Relentless Struggle for Commemoration
  • Selena Couture and Heather Davis-Fisch

As we assemble this issue in late summer and early autumn 2017, the majority of “celebrations” of Canada’s sesquicentennial have just concluded. Canada’s 150th anniversary has been characterized by ambivalence and cynicism, particularly in contrast to the year of national jubilation that marked the 1967 Centennial. The sesquicentennial sharply follows the official conclusion, in December 2015, of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Residential Schools with its issuing of 94 Calls to Action and the almost simultaneous establishment of a National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. It also coincides with the announcement, on 6 October 2017, of an “agreement in principle” to resolve through negotiation the claims for survivors of the Sixties Scoop, which saw thousands of Indigenous children taken from their homes and placed in foster care or adopted into non-Indigenous families.

The connection between these events may seem, at first glance, to be simply coincidental. However, Canada emerged as a “successful” settler colony through the application of the Indian Act, the development of Residential Schools, and the implementation of policies like the Sixties Scoop. By separating Indigenous children from their parents, their language, and their culture, the government of Canada pursued a strategy of cultural genocide against Indigenous peoples—a strategy which allowed settler Canadians to gain access to Indigenous lands and the resources within these lands. Alongside these systems, a culture of racism and violence directed against Indigenous peoples has flourished in Canada.

Through the long, hot summer of 2017, commemorative monuments became flashpoints where the relentless struggle to control such troubling historical narratives erupted into conflict. Of the many events held on Canada Day, one that gained national attention was a mourning ceremony held at the foot of a statue celebrating Edward Cornwallis as the founder of Halifax. The monument has long been considered offensive, particularly by the descendants of the Mi’kmaq people who survived Cornwallis’s October 1749 “Scalping Proclamation,” which paid a bounty to anyone who killed a Mi’kmaq adult or child. On 1 July, Chief Grizzly Mama (Git̲xsan) held a ceremony to mourn the loss of her daughter on the Highway of Tears in northern BC and for her “sisters and brothers in Winnipeg and Ontario and New Brunswick and Mi’kmaq territory” (Roache n.p.). After the cutting of her hair and the laying of two braids at the foot of the statue, five men wearing black-and-yellow polo shirts and carrying a pre-1965 Red Ensign flag of Canada disrupted the ceremony. They argued with the people participating in the ceremony for ten minutes and left. Later they were identified as members of the right-wing white supremacist Proud Boys association and as off-duty members of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). While the men were disciplined and CAF leadership apologized, the discord concerning the Cornwallis statue continued over the summer, as local organizers repeatedly gathered to demand its removal.1

The 1 July clash in Halifax was a precursor to grim events on 11–12 August, when a group of white supremacists gathered at a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of a statue commemorating Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Carrying torches as well as Nazi and Confederate flags while chanting Nazi slogans, the far-right protestors were met by counter-protestors. The confrontations culminated in the death of Heather Heyer and the injury of nineteen others after a white supremacist drove his car into a peaceful protest.

Less than two weeks later, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario passed a resolution to urge school boards across the province to remove Sir John A. MacDonald’s name from public schools, based on the argument that it is highly inappropriate for schools to bear the name of someone who played a central role in the establishment of the Indian Residential School system.

These public performances concerning the ethics of monumentalizing historical figures whose legacies include racist or genocidal policies demonstrate that the stakes of commemoration are high, particularly when we remind ourselves that commemoration is not synonymous with celebration but rather refers to how...


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