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Federal Politics

This Canada Day, We Need a New Citizenship Oath

Our current process teaches new Canadians all about colonial relations with Indigenous people. Why?

Lucy El-Sherif 1 Jul 2020The Conversation

Lucy El-Sherif is a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

This Canada Day might be a good time for Canadians to think about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action. At least three of those (No. 46, 47 and 49) call on Canadians, including newcomers to Canada, to reject concepts used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous lands and peoples.

But my preliminary research shows that concepts taught in the process of acquiring citizenship continue to teach new Canadians colonial relations with the land and with Indigenous peoples.

To become Canadian, immigrants to Canada have to swear or affirm allegiance to the British royal monarch:

“I swear (or affirm) that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors.”

In learning about Canada, new immigrants are taught that the Queen runs through all things Canadian. She is everywhere. Put your hands in your wallet, she is there. Walk onto any land that is outside of city boundaries, it is largely called “Crown” land.

But the Queen is a symbol of the colonization of Indigenous land, a colonization that is ongoing and is reproduced by the citizenship process.

Despite what many would like to believe, ideas of what Canada stands for are not all equitable.

What would it mean to follow the TRC calls, and study, learn and live Indigenous ways of relating to land?

Canadian citizenship is a social construct — a concept that seems fixed but is actually created by the changing cultures and people in a society. The idea of Canadian citizenship carries ideologies and power relations that are perpetuated through forms of public pedagogy — like popular culture, education and gate-keeping systems such as the citizenship process.

To become a Canadian citizen, immigrants have to study Discover Canada and score at least 15/20 on an exam that teaches them ways of imagining Canada. It details their expected practices and behaviours as citizens. It teaches them Canadian history.

For example:

“The arrival of European traders, missionaries, soldiers and colonists changed the native way of life forever. Large numbers of Aboriginals died of European diseases to which they lacked immunity.”

In this version of history, we are told that Indigenous people merely died from disease, not that these diseases were purposely spread by the British. We are not told that the colonizers practiced race-based genocide, starvation policies and the separation of children from their parents, through the Indian Residential Schools, the Sixties Scoop and the continuing removal of Indigenous children from their families.

Another excerpt has to do with Canada’s first prime minister:

“After the first Metis uprising, Prime Minister Macdonald established the North-West Mounted Police in 1873 to pacify the West and assist in negotiations with the Indians.”

Actually, one of the first assignments given to the North West Mounted Police was to forcibly relocate Indigenous communities in the path of the Canadian railway and Macdonald is the architect of the Indian Residential School system.

A third excerpt uncritically explains:

“Mining remains a significant part of the Canadian economy.”

Colonial ways of imagining and belonging to Canada and colonial relationships with Indigenous people are at the heart of injustices that Canada continues to perpetuate.

Colonization is a key driver of how the federal government continues to neglect the health and education of Indigenous children. And the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women report directly links the ongoing deaths of Indigenous women, girls and trans-people to colonial structures.

This colonial history presents a unique set of challenges for immigrants who have pledged their allegiance to a colonial queen. The citizenship exam attempts to bring new immigrants into Canada as allies of colonialism and frames Canada as a benevolent nation. How can immigrants decolonize their relationship to Canada?

Honouring indigeneity for immigrants is not just about saying we are all settlers — a term that assumes we are all white and relate to Canada in identical ways. And honouring indigeneity is not just a land acknowledgement in a ceremony — though that can be a starting point.

In her book, Pathways for Remembering and Recognizing Indigenous Thought in Education, University of Toronto professor Sandra D. Styres explains that Indigenous ways of relating to land centre on three practices: learning whose traditional lands we are on; committing to understanding stories and knowledges of those lands; and choosing to respect these stories of the land.

These Indigenous ways of relating to land are different from the colonial ones most Canadians are taught. These ways do not fit neatly with Canada’s colonial relations to the Queen to whom Canadians have pledged allegiance.

The TRC has called for a new oath of citizenship:

“I swear (or affirm) that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors, and that I will faithfully observe the laws of Canada including Treaties with Indigenous Peoples, and fulfill my duties as a Canadian citizen.”

Such an oath is in the works and would highlight immigrants as treaty people and their treaty obligations. But what of the history of colonial relations that immigrants are asked to learn and subscribe to so they can become citizens?

In 1974, the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry, also known as the Berger Inquiry, sought input from Indigenous nations about opening up their lands of the Yukon and the Northwest territories to a pipeline. Phillip Blake, a Dene and social worker, testified at a community hearing in 1975. His words offer a powerful philosophy for relations of belonging for those who come to settle on Indigenous land:

“We have always tried to treat our guests well, it never occurred to us that our guests would one day claim that they owned our whole house. Yet that is exactly what is happening. White people came as visitors to our land. Suddenly they claim it as their land. They claim that we have no right to call it Indian land, land that we have occupied and used for thousands of years…

I strongly believe that we do have something to offer your nation, however, something other than our minerals. I believe it is in the self-interest of your own nation to allow the Indian nation to survive and develop in our own way, on our own land. For thousands of years we have lived with the land, we have taken care of the land, and the land has taken care of us…

It is our greatest wish to be able to pass on this land to succeeding generations in the same condition that our fathers have given it to us… I believe your nation might wish to see us, not as a relic from the past, but as a way of life, a system of values by which you may survive in the future. This we are willing to share.”

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