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Our Great Big Backyard

Our calling to be better Canadians starts with more national news.

“Canadians love causes,” Stó:lō First Nations poet and author Lee Maracle says, “but they love the causes that are far away – out of their backyard, so to speak.” That indictment comes from her book My Conversations with Canadians, which details observations born from discussions with people across the country. Though her book was published pre-pandemic, Maracle would not be surprised by the causes that Canadians continue to love – even in the midst of COVID-19.

While our borders with the United States have been closed for over 10 months, this physical closure does not appear to decrease the amount of attention we pay to our southern neighbours. For even as we tuned in more provincially to understand COVID-19 case counts, gathering restrictions, and hospitalization numbers in our local areas, much Canadian news media, social media streams, and dinner-time discussions last year were still dominated by conversation over the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic, ongoing racial injustice in the States (and the renewed attention to it sparked by the tragic death of George Floyd), and a contentious American election.

This hyper-focus on American affairs has long been a part of Canadian culture and landscape, and some of it is certainly justified. Even those of us who were not alive during Pierre Trudeau’s time in office have heard his words from 1969, which Canadians like to cite in defense of our seeming-obsession with the U.S.: “Living next to [the United States] is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant,” the elder Trudeau said. “No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.”

Even so, despite our geographical proximity, cultural affinity and economic interdependence, it is possible that Canadians give the elephant and its twitches more weight than it’s due.

Which names do you recognize?

Joyce Echaquan with her last baby. Photo credit: Carol Dubé.

Last spring, just before the United States was wracked with protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death, at least four Black, Indigenous and people of colour died in Canada in incidents with which police were involved. While Americans reckoned with deep-seated systemic injustice with the killing of Breonna Taylor and the subsequent investigation, Joyce Echaquan, an Indigenous woman, died in hospital in Quebec with the degrading words of medical staff some of the last she heard. While the film Selma was being streamed for free in Canada so that people could learn more about the history of the civil rights movement in America, we marked the 30th anniversary of the Oka crisis. While a confirmation hearing for Amy Coney Barrett’s seat on the Supreme Court of the United States dominated headlines, the conflict between the Wet’suwet’en Nation, the Canadian government and Coastal Gaslink continued in the shadow of our own Supreme Court’s ruling in Delgamuukw v. The Queen. While images of little Ruby Bridges were juxtaposed next to that of Kamala Harris, even on the front page of Canadian newspapers, Leslyn Lewis became the second woman of colour to run for the leadership of a national political party in Canada. And when all eyes were fixed on the outcome of the 2020 U.S. election, Miꞌkmaq fishers in Nova Scotia were struggling to remind Canadians and our government of historic treaties and promises.

Though these comparisons are both imperfect and incomplete, the indictment for many Canadians is that we know far too much about the American examples, and far too little about the Canadian ones. While there is much to mourn, much to engage, and much to reckon with right here at home, our attention is instead fragmented, our historical knowledge lacking, and our focus distracted by our American neighbours – all of which has a deep impact on our understanding of the causes in our own backyard (as Lee Maracle put it), and on how we will respond to them.

Called to love more locally

For what happens to a country when its discourse is framed more by what’s going on outside of it than inside? How do we seek justice (racial, economic and otherwise) when the voices we’re listening to are talking about the American experience, and not the Canadian one? How are we to understand what Indigenous peoples mean when they call for decolonization, when we don’t understand our own history as colonizers? And how do we hold our government and ourselves to account when our measure becomes (the false), “at least we’re ‘not as bad as’ the States”?

As we enter 2021, still in the thick of a pandemic that is testing not only our medical systems but also the resilience and unity of our local communities, one of the (many) disciplines to which we may be called is to re-focus our love more wholly on our own backyard.

Perhaps we might even think of this as a spiritual discipline. After all, Christians have always been called to love the particular places in which they find themselves. The prophet Jeremiah is often quoted on this, and for good reason: Jeremiah understood how easily people are distracted or misled, but he also knew that when we seek the peace and welfare of wherever it is that God has put us, that we – and these places – flourish.

Of course, we must continue to love our American neighbours. And of course, we must still pay them attention. Because whether we like it or not, there is still an elephant in the room. But let Americans not be the only neighbours we love (globally or locally), and let our attention to them be in proper proportion, that we may commit more fully to the work we are called to do right here, in this place we call home.

Looking for more Canadian voices to learn from? Here are some places to begin. (Note that inclusion doesn’t necessarily equal endorsement – but we recommend listening to a diversity of voices, including those with which you do not necessarily agree).
News sites: CBC-Indigenous, the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, your local CBC page
National publications: The Walrus, Maclean’s, National Post
Podcasts: The Secret Life of Canada, Red Man Laughing
Books: follow Canada Reads on CBC
Politics: follow the work of the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue, Citizens for Public Justice, Cardus and KAIROS Canada. For a deep-dive, try the Institute for Research on Public Policy and the Yellowhead Institute.
Satire: The Beaverton, Walking Eagle News
Other: The Massey Lectures

  • Dena Nicolai is a student in the Master of Christian Studies Program at Regent College in Vancouver. She lived and worked in Egypt for four years between 2006 and 2011.

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