The celebrations of Pride Month and Canada 150 that took place over the summer may have appealed to the majority of Canadians who do not experience exclusion or erasure, but such celebrations promote a parochial form of Canadian exceptionalism that distorts history and marginalizes identities that should be central to the celebration of queerness and this land.
Pride Month in Toronto in its current form distorts its history of radical political resistance, and thereby it does a particular disservice to queer and trans people of colour. For Indigenous peoples, Canada 150 represents an erasure of thousands of years of human existence and the adverse impacts of colonization. Taken together, these celebrations uphold a Canadian brand of ‘progressiveness’ that enable institutions of power to appear legitimate, and a majority of Canadians to remain complacent toward a version of history that remains contested by the people that continue to be marginalized in Canadian society.
Until recently, Pride Month happily welcomed the Toronto Police Service’s participation in the Pride parade, disregarding both ongoing police violence toward racialized LGBTQ+ persons and the parade’s historical roots. The history of police violence toward queer and trans people of colour, captured in the Stonewall riots in America and Operation Soap in Canada, is what shaped Pride as a site for political resistance against institutions of power. As expressed by Black Lives Matter TO (BLMTO) co-founder Rodney Diverlus at Toronto Pride this year, “Pride is actually ours. Queer and trans people of colour actually started this.”
Last summer, BLMTO staged a sit-in protest at the Pride Month parade to challenge its anti-Blackness and demanded that police floats be removed from the parade. BLMTO was then accused of being divisive and exclusive. Such a reaction reflects a general attitude toward Black activism, in which any call for racial justice spawns discomfort in Canadians. After all, to challenge the police force, an agent of the state, is to challenge the image of the Canadian state itself.
Because BLMTO’s demands have since been accepted and incorporated by Pride Toronto, the not-for-profit organizers of Pride Month have faced threats of funding withdrawal from some members of the Toronto City Council. Clearly, Pride Toronto’s resistance to the oppression of the LGBTQ+ community does not necessarily account for those who are racialized within that very community.
For those who condemn colonization, Canada 150 is an anniversary to resist, not to celebrate. The anniversary has been condemned by Indigenous voices because, alongside celebrating the consolidation of the Canadian settler state, it also represents the violation of Indigenous self-determination — a violation that has been ongoing for centuries.
In today’s era of ‘reconciliation,’ Indigenous peoples remain critical of the work yet to be done. The federal government spent nearly half a billion dollars on Canada 150 celebrations — the kind of investment that is needed for Indigenous education, healthcare, and infrastructure. Given injustices like the residential schools system, environmental poisoning of Indigenous lands, and missing and murdered Indigenous women, there is little reason to celebrate the nationalist narrative from the perspective of the colonized.
Meanwhile, the Liberals continue to betray Indigenous communities’ needs. The government’s commitment to anti-Indigenous pipeline projects and its failure to amend the Indian Act to eliminate all gender-based discrimination against Indigenous women are just two examples of how reconciliation efforts have failed.
The problems with Pride Month intersect ongoing colonialism against Indigenous peoples. For instance, two-spirit folks, having endured a history of colonization, face under-representation at Pride Month. The wide cultural variety of sexualities and genders independent of western political history are not confinable to the LGBT category that remains at the heart of Canadian national identity.
The ultimate purpose of these events is to promote the image of Canada as a progressive and welcoming country, thereby feeding nationalist sentiments. Nationalism in general is a problematic phenomenon because it necessarily excludes in order to determine who belongs. Insofar as celebrations like Pride Month and Canada 150 capitalize on marginalization and identity, they disingenuously obscure the truth.
This is hardly the first time the concept of identity in Canada has been twisted for political purposes. Despite the image of diversity and multiculturalism Canada projects to the world, it has a history of treating migrants inhumanely — alongside oppression of Indigenous sovereignty, the migrant history of this land includes dark events such as the Chinese head tax, internment camps for Japanese Canadians, and refusal to accept Jewish refugees during World War II.
While this history of Canadian racism is seldom acknowledged in conversations about national identity, LGBTQ+ identity is instrumentalized via nationalism to serve the interests of institutions of power. Aside from the Toronto Police’s attempt to co-opt Pride Month, corporate structures like Gap and TD Bank have commercialized Pride Month through ‘pinkwashing,’ a practice that promotes a pro-diversity image and appeals to modern consumer preference to generate profit while distracting the public from unethical practices.
Internationally, the Canadian government has used LGBTQ+ identity to advance its construction of Canadian modernity on the world stage. Whether it be through Canada’s condemnation of Russian homophobia during the 2014 Sochi Olympics or Justin Trudeau’s conspicuous participation in Pride Month, the Canadian state uses Pride Month as a global platform to construct itself as a uniquely ‘progressive’ leader amid a less civilized world.
Canada 150, too, is a site for corporations to reinforce a celebratory Canadian identity as a profitable brand. Tim Hortons’ Canada 150 edition of Roll up the Rim reduces Canadian identity to a consumer culture that presumes the existence of diversity and equality. Both LGBTQ+ and Canadian national identity require complicity to institutions and common cultural beliefs about Canada. To this end, the narratives of racialized people, who experience exclusion and demand radical change, are intentionally left on the margins.
Together, Pride Month and Canada 150 produce a narrative about modern Canadian nationalism that is exploited by institutions of power. However, the radical history of queer identity and Indigenous experiences of settler colonialism offer alternative narratives that challenge those institutions of power. If we are truly committed to progressivism and diversity, we ought to postpone celebration and pay more attention to those who have yet to experience the emancipation promised by this country.
Ibnul Chowdhury is a third-year student at Trinity College studying Economics and Peace, Conflict, and Justice Studies.