Canada Day was sort of cancelled this year.
It’s usually my favourite holiday. Downtown Victoria is shut down to car traffic as thousands of tourists flood the Inner Harbour for a concert on the Legislature lawn. Usually it’s local bands, one year it was Sarah McLachlan. Once I volunteered as a stagehand for the concert, and got to meet Mother Mother, an amazing local band.
On a normal year I’ll wander around downtown, gawking at tourists. I was planning to go to Drag Ball in Vic West. That’s a baseball game organized by our drag community. Seeing a six-foot-tall queen in a miniskirt and platform stilettos hit a grounder, then stop to pick up their handbag before tottering to first base, was something I looked forward to all year.
I’d meet up with friends or coworkers to watch the fireworks in the evening. After the fireworks show, the thousands of people surrounding the harbour, those in towers downtown and boats on the water, all sing O Canada together and it echoes through the city. I’m a huge sucker for that moment and choke up when it happens.
This year the show is cancelled. No fireworks. No drag ball. No downtown shutdown. Due to COVID, obviously. And it’s not as disappointing as I expected it to be, because I don’t know how we could have celebrated Canada Day this year. Everything has changed.
Breonna Taylor was a EMT who was asleep in her bed when armed men broke into her house and murdered her. The people who did this were police officers, and in the United States, police officers are not held accountable to the law. All they have to do to get away with murder is invent a story about how they mistakenly thought you were a criminal. There will be no justice and they will be excused.
More black people were murdered by the police. At least, we started hearing about it more. Elijah McClain, a violinist walking home. George Floyd, a security guard and a father. Instead of the stories disappearing after a few days like they normally do, they blew up. There were demonstrations and then riots. The police responded with violence and escalation. Every story we read was more disappointment and betrayal. The police are supposed to be trustworthy, but they were behaving like gangsters and criminals.
We watched it safe on Vancouver Island, where nothing like this could ever happen. The Americans are crazy and they’re awful, but there are good ones and we wish them the best.
Keep the border closed though, please.
Then we started hearing stories that happened in Canada. Six indigenous people were killed by police in April and May this year in Canada. I didn’t hear about them until the protests started and our journalists decided that they were noteworthy all of a sudden.
Starlight Tours, where police take indigenous “troublemakers” out into the prairie, and leave them there to die of exposure. The Wikipedia article mentions three confirmed deaths, but when I posted on Facebook, people popped up and said that it happened to their relatives.
I visited a youth prison when I was 16, and I thought it was strange that most of the kids in there were First Nations, even though there was only one or two token First Nations kids in my school.
The kids in that prison were into hip hop and breakdancing. They wore basketball jerseys and moved their bodies like black people do on TV. I said nothing, but I sneered a bit. Don’t they have any culture of their own, that they have to pretend to be black?
I learned later that northern Vancouver Island, where I grew up, has the highest concentration of First Nations people in the country. Not in my schools though − apparently they were all in prison.
Even later than that, I learned that the residential schools that were briefly mentioned in Social Studies were not really an ancient history thing. The last one closed in 1996, when I was in first grade. There was a First Nations kid in my grade one class. He wasn’t there in grade two. Next time I saw him was at the youth prison that I went to in high school.
The #BLM Rally
My partner and I went to a Black Lives Matter rally in Victoria in June. We both felt unsure about going. Were we being tourists? Were there enough black people in Victoria for a rally like this to make sense? Were we just jumping on the latest social media bandwagon? A lot of people we both respected were going, so that’s how we made the choice.
There were more people in Centennial Square that day than I’ve ever seen on Canada Day. It was unreal. Hundreds of them were black. So much for the idea that there are only four black people in Victoria.
There were a lot of First Nations people in the crowd too, and at this point I’ve realized that if they are into hip hop and black culture, it might be because they identify with black oppression. It might be because their own culture was stolen from them.
Then one of the speakers called out that specific joke. “There are more than four black people in Victoria,” she said. “And when you make that joke, you’re contributing to erasure. You’re saying we don’t exist. People who don’t exist don’t need consideration or regard. They have no voice. They are not heard. They don’t matter.”
So we don’t make that joke anymore. But we used to.
The Duncan Bridge Game
View this post on Instagram
VICTORIA, B.C. — Like many others this past Tuesday, Kyle O’Riley of Victoria posted a single black square to his Instagram feed in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. While the Blackout Tuesday posts have been met with some criticism, being cited as “lazy activism”, Kyle, a self proclaimed online activist and line cook, wants the record to show that he is doing more to mitigate the 100+ years of discrimination in Canada by denying his previous racist tendencies completely. “For as long as I can remember, I’ve never been a racist person,” said Kyle. “I for sure never played the Duncan Bridge Game on road trips with my hockey team, in fact, I think Duncan is a beautiful place when I’m on my inflatable inner tube, on a river far away from it.” The Duncan Bridge Game, or as it is known to some, “How Many Natives Are On The Bridge?”, is played exactly like the title suggests. Young Islanders would place their bets on the stretch of highway going past the farmer’s market, in anticipation of hitting the bridge just past the Doghouse Family Restaurant billboard. Although the game was an unspoken staple of a white trip to Parksville, people like Kyle are now denying the game even existed. “I don’t even know why I said Duncan Bridge Game,” said Kyle, “honestly, I’ve never played it or heard of anybody else playing it. The fact that I instinctively yell ‘TWO AND A STROLLER’ when I pass the meat market is a complete coincidence. I’m a very tolerant person with almost zero personality flaws. So obviously I would never participate in this clearly bigoted and non-existent activity.” Kyle plans to do more to show his support for the movement, including posting his favourite Childish Gambino song on his instagram story, as well as denying that he has ever been scared to walk around Esquimalt past 9 PM.
Someone posted this on Instagram − the Duncan Bridge game. “The Duncan Bridge Game, or as it is known to some, “How Many Natives Are On The Bridge?”, is played exactly like the title suggests. Young Islanders would place their bets on the stretch of highway going past the farmer’s market, in anticipation of hitting the bridge just past the Doghouse Family Restaurant billboard. […] the game was an unspoken staple of a white trip to Parksville…”
When I saw that post I had a sinking feeling. I’ve played that game. My partner knew about it too.
They seemed like small things in the past but we were starting to realize how deep and wide the problem of racial injustice is and how we had contributed to it by ignoring it. I guess we ignored it at least partly out of helplessness. Once you see how big it is, you realize that our society has to be dismantled piece by piece and rebuilt on a foundation of justice. Like, we do territory acknowledgments before public meetings. “We acknowledge that this gathering takes place on the unceded territories of the W̱SÁNEĆ and the Lək̓ʷəŋən peoples. We are grateful for their hospitality.“
Okay, except they weren’t given a choice. So is it really hospitality? Are you going to leave if they ask you to?
So this year, instead of the usual capital city party, there were two privately organized events on the Legislature lawn.
On the steps of the Legislature, in front of the wire fences that were erected after the pipeline protests in February and never removed, was a rally led by Indigenous youth called Resist Canada 153. It was organized by Kati Raven George-Jim, Vanessa Simon, Sii-am Hamilton, and Asiyah Robinson.
Closer to the road there was another rally. According to a Vic News article, it was called Unify Canada. The organizers of that rally refused to give their names to journalists.
There were some differences between the two rallies.
Everyone in the group on the steps wore masks. They sat six feet apart in small groups with the people they came with. They sat calmly and listened respectfully as speakers talked about the history of racism against First Nations people in Canada. The speakers told stories. The content was disturbing, but the stories were interesting, coherent, and educational. They spoke from personal experience. There was lots of laughter, applause and smiling and a few dancers moving through the crowd. The people attending were mostly young and a third or so of them were people of colour.
They had a sound system set up − it was powered by bicycle and people were taking turns riding it.
The people in the other group were mostly older, and all of them were white. None of them wore masks and they weren’t taking any trouble to distance from each other. They were carrying signs that said stuff about liberty and freedom. One guy had a sign saying “100’s of countries demand investigation of COVID fraud”.
They had two trucks blocking vehicle traffic on Belleville St, one covered in flags and maple leaf merchandise. This group also had a sound system, and when we arrived, someone was shouting incoherently. They said things about vaccinations, about white people being oppressed, and that COVID was a hoax. I only caught words and phrases, it was mostly just catchphrases. There wasn’t much of a logical chain of thought to it. They were shouting as loud as possible trying to drown out the other rally.
We moved closer to the legislature steps and it became like a mosquito whine in the background, quiet enough to ignore.
When I’m not sure of myself, I like to look to people I respect and see where they are. People I respect are kind, generous and loving. They speak clearly and allow others to speak. They try to include others. They live, whether knowingly or not, by a Bible verse that goes “Be careful […] that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” So they wear masks and distance, even if they don’t think they have much of a chance of being infected. And they use their rights to protect the rights of others.
I don’t have any doubt of which group I belong with.
Canada Day was very strange, but I feel more hopeful than I ever have before. The sense of helplessness in the face of overwhelming injustice is getting smaller, because black and indigenous youth are stepping up, making noise, and demanding change. Their voices are getting louder and clearer, and changes are starting to happen. It feels like anything is possible. The angry, old, white people in the Unify Canada rally seem to get smaller and less important every day. It feels like they might disappear some day, and just be a minor note in a history book, like the chapter on residential schools.
I help manage a small business owned by my friends Karmen and Ivy. We make COVID masks. We have dozens of fun prints, and it seemed natural to include some Canada Day prints. We want to be inclusive, so we put up some First Nations prints as well and advertised a Canada Day sale.
As soon as the advertisement went up though, we saw the First Nations prints next to the maple leaf prints on this ad about a holiday that celebrates our 153 year history of residential schools, police brutality, and colonial violence, and we got that sinking feeling again. We took down the ad and had a staff meeting about how we were going to celebrate Canada Day. We concluded that we couldn’t. So we sold the maple leaf fabric at cost and removed the rest of the ads.
We don’t know how to do Canada Day this year. Maybe next year we’ll know.