SIMON NATRASS: Rights under attack on Canada Day

Tightly controlled security in Victoria bristles columnist

Another Canada Day has come and gone, and whatever vestigial patriotism I may have had seems to have gone with it.

Try as I might to see the good in Monday’s celebrations, this year seems to hold more cloud than silver lining for our Nation’s favourite holiday.

I remember the first year the joint police task force used helicopters and armoured cars to disperse crowds of patriotic Canada Day revellers even before the final echoes of fireworks had faded away.

Sitting on a bluff overlooking the city, I saw searchlights sliding across the sky and heard the pulse of helicopter blades cutting the air as thousands were driven from town. Several people would later relate how they had been aggressively ushered out of the downtown core by police and harassed while simply cutting through the area on their way to homes in James Bay or Fairfield.

I remember the last time I took a bus downtown on Canada Day, when that same task force – composed of West Shore RCMP, Victoria police, other police agencies, and B.C. Transit – set up checkpoints on all routes entering the region’s core.

Passengers were ordered to leave the bus, line up on the sidewalk, and submit to searches by officers enforcing B.C. Transit’s ban on carrying alcohol onboard buses.

While Canada Day could be a time to celebrate the professed values of our country, police across the nation seem to interpret rowdy celebrations as an opportunity to illustrate their contempt for those values.

In a letter to the Victoria Police Board in 2010, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association condemned the ongoing Canada Day searches as a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

On Monday, signs tacked to bus stops still informed potential passengers that “you may be subject to search.”

Folks harassed by police weren’t the only ones without a reason to celebrate on Monday. In publications and online, several indigenous activists across the country shared their thoughts on what it means to be a proud Canadian.

As Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation member Susana Deranger said in a recent article, “It would be strange indeed to celebrate the birth of a nation that stole my land, forced hardships on my peoples and won’t recognize my place in this nation or all that my ancestors lost and sacrificed for this home on my native land.”

Closer to home, a century and a half ago Victoria was the staging point for the genocide of indigenous peoples up and down the coast.

From offices in Fort Victoria, colonial administrators orchestrated the spread of smallpox in indigenous communities, killing as much as 90 per cent of the population in some areas, as told by Tom Swanky in The True Story of Canada’s “War” of Extermination on the Pacific.

Historian Chris Arnett also notes that Fort Victoria housed the ships which bombarded indigenous villages under the guise of justice when warriors fought back against encroachment by settlers. The brutal process of colonization continues today as we celebrate the confederation of a nation on stolen land.

Today, the Harper Conservatives and B.C. Liberals have failed to bring out that ‘O Canada’ feeling in many of us. Canada is cut up and tied down as pipelines creep across the West and civil disobedience is increasingly met by mass arrests and the suspension of basic rights.

I am proud of some things – I am proud that many Canadians support civil rights and the ongoing struggles of indigenous peoples. I am proud that alternative stories are being told alongside those which romanticize our history and minimize our flaws.

As beer-commercial patriotism slowly gives way to honesty and self-awareness, I am proud that Canadians may soon have something worth celebrating.

Simon Nattrass’s column can be found in Friday’s paper and online at vicnews.com.

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