On the Road from 100 to 150: Professor John Wadland’s Look Back at Canada 150.

Header with photo of First Nations protester wearing a shirt that says: TREATY NOW!

When TRENT Magazine decided to look back on the celebrations of our sesquicentennial, it seemed only natural to approach Professor John Wadland for a take on our cultural history. After all, his remarkable teaching career in Trent’s Canadian Studies Department spanned more than 35 years; his signature course, “Canada: the Land” was one of the best known and most influential courses in the humanities; and his courses on culture and communications in Canada, bioregionalism, and Canadian images helped define new interdisciplinary models and ways of understanding Canada for generations of Trent students. Not only that, but Prof. Wadland was the former chair of the Canadian Studies Program and director of the Frost Centre for Canadian Studies and Indigenous Studies -- someone well respected for his work in such areas. 

We were pleased to have Prof. Wadland provide us with his thoughts. And we are even more pleased to share them with you. He is a true Trent luminary and a faculty member that is beloved by alumni, staff, and fellow professors from across the university community. More importantly, one of  the country's most respected voices on the history and culture of Canada.

Note: Stay tuned for our publishing of alumna Teyotsihstokwáthe Dakota Brant's look at Canada 150, "Law of the Land," coming later in the week. Ms. Brant is an artist, entrepreneur, and speaker on issues spanning the Indigenous experience in North America—and a valued voice to add to our examination of Canada 150.

On the Road from 100 to 150
Prof. John Wadland

What is an anniversary? It’s a measure of days—365 in total—during which myriad events have occurred: graduations, floods, elections, bombings, forest fires, robberies, car accidents, births, deaths, mortgage foreclosures, weddings, legislation. Stuff happens for 365 days, then we start all over again, beginning, on the first day, by reminiscing about the year past. After observing this ritual for 50 or 100 years in a row we not only celebrate, we want to step back and reflect upon the passage of time as some sort of totality. But we often use this same moment to ignore, or erase from memory, those aspects of what we now call our history, our heritage, that don’t add up to collective perceptions of grandeur and accomplishment.

Canada’s largest party for the Centennial of Confederation celebration was based at Expo 67, a brilliant, international modernist architectural showplace, self-contained on an artificial island in the St. Lawrence. It was a place to worship human ingenuity uncritically and to imagine a techno-materialist future, not unlike the one we have actually inherited. The Indians of Canada Pavilion was alone in sticking its finger in the eye of the host nation, through exhibits that challenged visitors to understand everything from treaties to residential schools as symbols of a pernicious colonialism. Not much celebrating at that pavilion.

For Canada 150 our guests and fellow citizens have been lured by free admission, not to an artificial wonderland adjacent to one of the country’s largest cities, but to its national parks, spread out across the nation’s endless landscapes. This strikes me as a remarkable initiative worthy of some reflection. First and foremost, it’s a statement about the centrality of the land to a culture that has spent the last 150 years digging it up and moving it to the city. Whether we are talking about sand, gold, plastic bags, beavers, lumber, wheat, Hydro Québec, oil, steel, blueberries or the Group of Seven, we are talking about the land, most of which was stolen from the ancestors of those unhappy folks at the Indians of Canada Pavilion. Despite the techno-hubris promised by Expo 67 and now apparently realized, we are all rather more dependent upon all of that stuff we take out of the ground.

Photo of John Wadland at Traill.My academic career has sat squarely on a trajectory spanning the 50 years from 1967 to 2017. I completed my B.A. in 1967, my M.A. in 1968 and began working towards my Ph.D. in 1969. By 1972 I was teaching at Trent. In the interval, and hard on the heels of the Centennial, the political discourse of my cohort was animated by student riots in Paris, by the Cultural Revolution in China, by fallout from the Six Day War in the Middle East, by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and by opposition to the Vietnam conflict. At home, we witnessed the transformative ascendancies of Pierre Trudeau and René Lévesque, the October Crisis, the birth of the Official Languages Act and a state-protected policy of multiculturalism. The Canadian Radio-Television Commission (CRTC) was born in 1968 to establish an arm’s length regulatory process for Canada’s broadcasting system, placing both private and public owners under uniform oversight, and prioritizing Canadian content. The Committee for an Independent Canada (CIC) was established in 1970 to stand up for Canadian economic and cultural self-determination. Canada’s first official voice for the land, the Ministry of the Environment, dates from 1971, shortly after the birth of Pollution Probe at the University of Toronto in 1969. The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) was born in 1968 and the National Action Committee on the Status of Women in 1971. The first protections guaranteeing the rights of same sex relationships date from omnibus legislation passed by the Trudeau government in 1969. This year also witnessed Canada’s signature on the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. These few examples taken together constitute a metaphor for an awakening in Canada that followed immediately upon the Centennial celebrations. In an article contributed to the Millennium (another anniversary) volume of the Journal of Canadian Studies, I characterized this awakening as an explosion of “Voices in Search of a Conversation.” As global challenges mount and as our awareness of those displaced and marginalized in and by our own society, these voices continue to grow in number and the conversation gains greater complexity. But on the road to Canada 150, no voice has spoken more eloquently, or with greater effect, than the Indigenous voice.

The Canadian Studies program at Trent was promised in Tom Symons’s 1964 inaugural address and delivered under the chairmanship of Alan Wilson in 1972, the first interdisciplinary pedagogical experiment at Trent. But it was also preceded by the Native Studies Department (now the Chanie Wenjack School of Indigenous Studies) in 1971. Arriving at Trent the following year as the first appointment in Canadian Studies, I turned immediately to the first Chair of Native Studies, Walter Currie, for guidance in setting the stage for my first course, “Canada: The Land.” This shared beginning followed just three years after the infamous White Paper, and the publication of Harold Cardinal’s The Unjust Society, two years after the publication of Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. It was one year after Robert Bourassa’s government announced commencement of the James Bay Power Project and the year before the Supreme Court decision in the Calder case recognizing Aboriginal title to land. In this heated historical climate, Walter Currie, himself Anishinaabe, generously offered the first formal lecture in my “Canada: The Land” course, beginning with this greeting to the assembled students:

I would like on behalf of my people to officially welcome you to our shores. We hope and expect that your stay here will be pleasant and memorable, that while you are here you will not only take note of our customs and beliefs but will respect and honour them. In turn, we will not try in any manner to impose upon you our ways, nor to change yours.

I will never forget those simple words, offered in nuanced jest to underline the absurdity of the circumstances facing First Nations peoples in their own land. They set me on a very particular journey of discovery that continues to challenge my understanding of Canada.

Today the humanities and social sciences are under attack in the universities of many Western countries. The conventional wisdom would have it that we should be directing students to the STEM fields where future jobs will abound. History, geography, literature, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, politics, and the interdisciplinary fields that grow from them—these are subjects to occupy our leisure, not our reality. Another element of this logic is the troubling notion that we now live in a global world and that the study of Canada is somehow parochial navel gazing. Yet, in my experience, every generation of students passing through “Canada: The Land” on the way to Canada 150 can relate their understanding of the world to the manner in which they have had to absorb the same kind of international tumult that engulfed me as I began teaching. Think of the Iran/Iraq War, 9/11, the Syrian Civil War, the Rwandan genocide, the financial crisis of 2007-08, ISIS, climate change. All of these crises must be faced. All of them, and none of them, is about one’s job.

Photo of John Wadland from archives.As a teacher, one is never allowed to grow old. But a teacher must also be able to keep before the young what is apparently old, to provide context for everything now. Because nothing now comes from nowhere. And everything now will become memory and precedent. A teacher grows with one’s students, recognizing the importance of their lived experience, depth of reading and understanding, while simultaneously introducing questions that challenge assumptions and opinion—also hearing and responding to the replying critique. This dialectic is a respectful conversation built incrementally upon the acquisition of knowledge, and in time, wisdom. The humanities and social sciences are essential to the process because they give us the tools to ask the hard questions.

There is folly in ignorance of our place, the place where we live and its place in the world. It is important that we see ourselves as others see us. But it is more important To Know Ourselves, as Tom Symons urged in his famous 1975 AUCC report of the same name. Our culture demands that we all know about the treaties. We need to know about St. Catharine’s Milling and Lumber and its relationship to the Royal Proclamation (1763). We need to know that the Calder case (1973) put an end to the White Paper (1969), that it seeds Section 35 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982), Delgamuukw (1997) and Tsilhqot’in Nation (2014), and that such cases in law have far-reaching implications for land claims in this country, well beyond Canada 150. We also need, especially, to know the why of all this. It is in the why that we come fully to understand the meaning of these signposts for the painful injustices of the past. And these signposts are planted squarely on “natural” resources, those elements of the land that we relocate to our cities and massage into apparent usefulness.

The journey of Canadian Indigenous peoples from 1967 to 2017 is peppered with hard-won evidence of gathering strength and power. The first of the modern treaties, the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (1975), the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry (1974-77), the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1991-96), the birth of Nunavut (1999), and most recently Canada’s formal adoption of, and commitment to implement, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2016)—all of these benchmarks recognize in writing the centrality of the land in First Nations’s cultures, and the requirements guaranteeing its protection. In its “Call to Action,” article 45, The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2010-15) calls upon the Government of Canada to “Repudiate concepts used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous lands and peoples such as the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius,” and to “Renew or establish Treaty relationships based on principles of mutual recognition, mutual respect and shared responsibility for maintaining those relationships into the future.”

On the road to Canada 150 I have witnessed and, with my Trent colleagues and students, shared conversations about these profound developments, all of which, at last, presage major remedies to the unbearable circumstances to which First Nations peoples have been subjected before and since Confederation. But, lest we be lulled to sleep by these constructive accomplishments, let us acknowledge that it has taken far too long to accomplish them.

It is still common today, in defense of Sir John A. Macdonald, to argue that his well-documented transgressions against Indigenous peoples be viewed against the time in which he lived—and therefore forgiven or overlooked. This historical trope is really saying that there was a time when cultural genocide was acceptable. The legacy of that position was courageously revealed by those for whom being on the land, with their own families, languages and traditions centering their lives, raised their voices to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. However benign Canadian history aspires to view Confederation and its founding fathers, the theft of Indigenous lands gradually being reversed by developments since the Centennial is telling. Canadians who have benefitted from unearned increments in land might reflect upon their good fortune in the context of the losses experienced by Indigenous peoples. This measure is called postcolonialism and it speaks back to a logic attempting to absolve the present from participation in its past. The years since Canada’s Centennial celebrations have begun to teach this, but Canada still needs an entire nation of learners. A social sciences and humanities project for us all.

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