What is Canada?

Ogden Point, Victoria BC, May 2016, taken by Tanya Nielsen

Today is Canada Day and for most of the country, it is a time to celebrate the anniversary of the Constitution Act of July 1st, 1867. This usually means a parade, fireworks, cake, and the celebration of the many cultures that have come together to form this country. It is a bit different in Newfoundland though. While there is some celebration, this day is also referred to as Memorial Day, the anniversary of Beaumont-Hamel. This was a moment in the First World War where hundreds of Newfoundland soldiers died in the Battle of Somme.

Newfoundlanders still celebrate with fireworks, cake, and music on George Street, but there is a tinge of sadness to the party. The memory of those who fell is very much alive, and acknowledged today. I was warned before my first Canada Day in St. John’s, that it was a different kind of day in this province; I was warned that it can be a sensitive topic for some people. This was probably the first time I saw how this day could have a different meaning for some people; it made me question what Canada means, and what it means to me.

Canada stretches thousands of kilometres (5187 km east to west, and 4627 km north to south), encompassing the Rockies, the Prairies, the Arctic Circle, Atlantic coast, Pacific Coast, five time zones, French and English, multiple First Nations peoples, and generations of immigrants from all over the world. What does this day mean to all these people, from all these different places? What does this country represent?

My father moved to Canada from Bolivia in the 1960s, when he was eighteen years old. He had a scholarship from the Catholic church to study abroad at the Notre Dame University in Nelson, BC. For him, this country meant possibility, and hope for something more. He moved away from a tropical climate, his family, and everything that he knew, to a country known for its winters, where everyone spoke English, and everything was different.


Julio & Cecile Alvarez, Kokanee Park BC, 1970


Cecile Alvarez, BC, (date unknown)

He built a life, made friends, and eventually met and married my mother. He chose to stay, and not move back to the country he used to call home.

I remember how my father used to visit his home country every five years, regardless of whether the rest of us could accompany him or not. Even though he enjoyed his life in Canada, it was difficult for him to be so far away from his family. The years that had past had not made his absence any easier on our relatives. They were used to everyone staying close, and had difficulty understanding that my father moved to the other side of the world. For them, this country meant distance, barriers, a different language, and family they hardly knew.

My father would take a lot of photos, or make a video of our home in Canada before he would make a trip to Bolivia. He wanted to show everyone what our house looked like, our hometown, where he worked and how the rest of us looked (if we were not going with him). We wanted to show our family that we were doing well and that we had a good life in Canada. We took pictures of where we lived in the Pacific northwest coast of British Columbia, showing them how Canada was right on the ocean (Bolivia is landlocked), filled with giant trees, and small towns.


Alcan Beach, Kitimat BC, 1991, taken by Julio Alvarez

We did not take pictures of places like Vancouver, or Toronto, the Prairies, or the Atlantic coast, and we did not show them the multi-cultural background that makes up this country. Every photograph for them focused on our life, and our geographical understanding of Canada. I realize now that it was also my understanding of Canada, and I made this realization when I returned to the Pacific coast last May.


Pathway to the Marine Station,
Bamfield BC, Summer 2009, taken by Tanya Nielsen

When I think of Canada, I think of the oceans, old forests with trees so tall they block out the sun, and snow so deep one can jump off the roof of their house and be fine (unfortunately I do not have pictures of this, but I did do this). I grew up in British Columbia, a place so closely connected to its environment, that the tourism slogan is ‘Super, Natural British Columbia’. This is what I grew up recognizing as ‘Canada’, and it was what my family would talk about when we talked about this country.

When I think of Canada Day though, I think about how everyone in Kitimat would come together and celebrate their own heritage, as well as the country that brought us all together. I think about the people I grew up with, the people who understood the possibility and the hope that my father had when he moved here because they had the same dreams as him. The only difference was the place they came from.


St. John’s & the Atlantic Ocean, St. John’s Newfoundland, September 2012, taken by Tanya Nielsen

Now, when I think about Canada and Canada Day, I have composite idea from my family’s history, my relative’s impressions, my own personal history, my travels across this country, and the history of where I live now. I think about the people I knew while growing, the multi-cultural background, the struggle of immigrants, the nature that surrounds us, the cities and towns across 5187 kilometres, and the losses we have suffered in the history of this nation.

Whatever this country and this day mean to you, have a good day, and remember.

© Tanya Nielsen (tjn710@mun.ca),  2016


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