Guest Commentary

Very Rev. Dr. Bill Phipps

An Anniversary That Matters

As Canada turns 150 years old in 2017, we are standing at a crossroads. One path would have Canadians see the world through the narrow lens of corporate achievement. The other puts us in a leadership role on critical issues faced by humankind. This anniversary matters.

I’m not impressed by government events planned leading up to our sesquicentennial. Commemoration of hockey and military are passé. It’s a government-scripted story about our past and national identity; a story you must recite over and over again if you want it to resonate.

This government loves rhetoric, pomp and circumstance – though I don’t think they have a clue how to engage in military conflict. The story of past battles is easy. The War of 1812 and the First World War produce a story easily told: you march around monuments and tell the world we are a reliable military power. This act is not sterile. It substitutes a more loving and positive narrative of Canada facing a future where we must live in a new way.

In concentrating on ancient global conflicts, we block out more important expressions. In fact, Canada has a far more exciting story to tell.

We have one of the best records in the world of welcoming and accepting people from other countries. We also have a history of racism. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission revealed our story is not always pleasant. By documenting the experience of Indian Residential Schools and how we’ve struggled to deal honestly with discrimination, a whole new and more profound story of Canada emerges.

We are beginning to understand what First Nations are, and what they mean to the life of our country. We have chance to show the world how Canadians live together in respect despite all our differences. Isn’t it amazing?

Canadians seeking a way to observe the country’s 150 th birthday should visit the new Human Rights Museum in Winnipeg. Walk past the statue of Gandhi and look to your right. There is a contemplative rock garden where visitors are invited to pause and think of First Nations.

Don’t ask me for catchy phrases to put on a sesquicentennial banner. I know what the true message should be: we’ve had 150 great years; let’s see if we can become a place where indigenous people are part of the fabric on their own terms, and people from all over the world are welcomed as part of that fabric too. The opportunity is there. Wouldn’t that be more exciting than going over old British battles?

Instead, we march in celebration of past military glories. There is a cost; our human species is in crisis. Climate change is another issue that presents an opportunity for Canada at 150. We can live in respect with creation. We can be a leader in renewable energy; we could show the world how to ease an addiction to fossil fuels by promoting renewable energy – wind, solar, tidal and geothermal. We have this in abundance.

Climate change is not one issue among many. It is the embracing reality of our time, and the spiritual challenge of our era. Climate change is not only connected to how we relate to, and live in, Mother Earth; it is connected to obscene inequality, reckless and indulgent consumption, and human entitlement. Climate change and all it impacts begs the question, who are we? What are human beings for? How are we to live in healthy relationships with our earthly home and all creatures?

Why can’t we lead the way? This is my passion. Sadly, our sesquicentennial has become political. The government will not commemorate a just society, or medicare; the Canada Pension Plan, public education or unemployment insurance. These are all genuine accomplishments that made Canada a significant country, but they have been edited out of the official story. You won’t hear about those milestones. Cabinet doesn’t believe in them. I wish I knew why.

A sesquicentennial should look forward, not back. We’re confronting challenges humankind has never faced. Let’s build on our past, but remember the future is far more exciting. As we turn 150, wouldn’t it be wonderful if Canadians could say we are going to confess our past and embark on a whole new course that has human beings living together with respect for our differences and respect for the earth?

This is what the 21 st century has to be about.

(Editor’s note: the author is former moderator of the United Church of Canada)

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