Diving into the origins of the phrase, the layered meanings, and why we must continue using it
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The phrase “so-called Canada” is on the rise, especially within the world of social and environmental movements. For many, the words are empowering and speak truth. For others, the words are confusing, even sparking controversy & anger.
But what does “so-called Canada” really mean and why is it important?
Origins of the Phrase
“So-called Canada” is a relatively new phrase popularized in the 21st century, but it has a deep historical context.
A leading theory for the origins of the name “Canada” is a lost-in-translation moment between early settlers and the Original Peoples of these lands. The story goes French settler Jacques Cartier misunderstood the meaning of the Huron-Wendat-Iroquois word kanata, which translates to village or settlement. He mistakenly thought the lands his expedition sought to claim were called “Canada”. By 1547, the name Canada began appearing on European maps.
But these lands were never called Canada by the Original Peoples. These lands were called Turtle Island, manito-wapâw, onitariio, kepék, tkaronto, nunavut, loyu-kun-ah, tuktoyaktuk, and adawe, to name only a few. They were home to about 80 different Indigenous nations, only about 50 of which survived colonization and establishment of – well here we are at the first use of this phrase in context – so-called Canada.
Because this land was never legitimately known as Canada to the Indigenous peoples who inhabited these lands, the phrase “so-called Canada” began as a succinct way to describe the gap between traditional settler conceptions of the founding of this country and the lived experience of Indigenous peoples who were violently dispossessed of their ancestral lands, waters, & governance systems in the process.
Layers of Meaning
But the phrase carries so much more meaning than simply naming a gap in historical perception between settlers & Indigenous peoples.
First, the words “so-called Canada” serve as an invitation to the people now living on these lands (also known as settlers or newcomers) to recognize and reflect on the real history of these lands. The phrase “so-called Canada” embodies that these lands were not always called Canada and that the journey to calling this land Canada was filled with violence & injustice against the Original Peoples of these lands, who already called them home. Indigenous peoples were murdered, imprisoned, brutalized, stolen, and dispossessed of their traditional lands & cultures. This same violence was also reflected in how settlers related to and treated the natural world. Ecosystems and water sources were compromised and destroyed through this time in the name of so-called ‘progress’, further endangering the Indigenous communities whose lives and culture depend on connection with their ancestral lands. The Phrase “so-called Canada” calls into question the legitimacy of these violent activities to establish a country where there were already multiple nations.
“So-called Canada” is also used to expose the ways the violence and injustices that created so-called Canada are not just far away historical events, but visible in recent atrocities (and in fact still ongoing today).
Looking to recent history, residential schools are a poignant example of the systemic endeavours to eradicate Indigenous cultures and nations across Turtle Island through breaking up families and assimilating Indigenous youth. We also know all too well these school systems resulted in the deaths of thousands of Indigenous youth, evidenced in the mass graves that are still being uncovered at these former residential school sites, the stories from residential school survivors & families, as well as confessions of guilt and sorrow from churches and the government who perpetrated these crimes. Genocide was defined in the 1948 Genocide Convention as any of these five acts: ”(a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” The residential school system was a form of genocide against Indigenous peoples. The last residential school was closed in 1996, less than 30 years ago. This system which sought to eradicate Indigenous peoples is not part of a distant past. The harm still echoes loudly through Indigenous communities today.
Turning to the present, there are many examples of ongoing systemic violence & injustices against Indigenous peoples. Boil water advisories. The criminalization of land & water defenders on their sovereign soils. Missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Policies that target breaking up Indigenous families and instances of forced sterilization for Indigenous peoples. The overrepresentation of Indigenous folks in correctional facilities. The disproportionate policing of Indigenous communities. Resources extraction paradigms and so-called ‘development’ that continues on Indigenous lands without Indigenous consent. The list of injustices Indigenous peoples are still experiencing today is too long. This all happens in so-called Canada.
Sometimes, “so-called Canada” is also used colloquially as a term to reference the federal government, meant to challenge their authority and legitimacy. The “Canadian” government has declared itself as representative of all the people who inhabit this land. Yet, this governing body in practice does not pursue meaningful reconciliation, often does not act in the interests of the poor or marginalized, and continues to enact policies of resource extraction & development that further endanger Indigenous ways of being. This governing body does this all while adding literal fuel to the literal fire of the climate crisis through continued fossil fuel development & infrastructure projects, like the Coastal Gas Link pipeline being resisted by the Wet'suwet'en. “So-called Canada'' in this context challenges the authority & legitimacy the federal government has given itself over peoples it does not represent in practice. It also reveals a power dynamic at play in Canada where the federal government systemically upholds settlers as the true, rightful subjects of these lands as “Canadians” and ignores the authority & legitimacy of Indigenous peoples and nations to determine their own futures, as well as the future of their sovereign and ancestral lands.
Finally, “so-called Canada” confronts the idea that Canada itself is a unified country and alternatively, gives recognition and empowerment to the more than 50 sovereign Indigenous nations that exist on these lands from coast to coast.
“So-called Canada” is a Call to Action
The many meanings of “so-called Canada” are layered and contextual, yet they also bring clarity to the long history of injustice faced by Indigenous peoples on these lands. In response, using the phrase “so-called Canada” can also illuminate the pathways we must all walk to repair the historical and ongoing injustices experienced by Indigenous peoples on these lands.
Here are a few of those pathways.
Learn more about the history and ongoing injustices of so-called Canada: This article barely scratches the surface of the historical and current injustices experienced by Indigenous peoples. Learn whose traditional and treaty lands you live on with a resource like Native Land. Attend Indigenous-led events and listen to their stories.
Continue naming these lands “so-called Canada”: The phrase “so-called Canada” let’s us name a dichotomy that exists on these lands between the colonial narratives of “building a nation” and the real lived experiences of genocide & disenfranchisement for Indigenous peoples. It sparks conversation and allows us as settler allies and so-called Canadians to continue to challenge the harmful narrative that Canada historically and presently is a place for all to thrive. It can become a place for all to thrive, but we must build that place. A good place to start is by clearly naming the reality and harm of this country’s origins, including the way it has shaped how societal structures relate to Indigenous peoples, the lands, and the waters here. It helps us name what it is we must move away from so we can build something different.
Dismantle colonial systems of oppression: More than just naming the truth, the phrase “so-called Canada” actively calls us to dismantle the systems perpetuating harm and to build something different in its place. This includes challenging the ongoing systems that criminalize people for being from racialized communities, including Indigenous peoples. It includes confronting the ongoing destruction of lands and consumption of waters that is happening at wildly unsustainable rates. It includes ending the federal government’s complicity in the criminalization and murder of Indigenous peoples defending land and water on their own unceded, sovereign territories. It includes pushing for treaty rights to be recognized and fulfilled. It demands consultation and consent at minimum. This is our collective work.
Support calls for land back: We must confront the fact so-called Canada is made up of stolen lands. To heal that wound, the best place to start is the simplest: give land back. There are a number of different calls to the federal government to honour historical treaties. Recently, a Vancouver Island family worked with the Tsartlip and Tseycum First Nations to return 18 hectares of their traditional territory to Indigenous stewardship. We need more of these examples of justice in action and we can each be in solidarity with these movements. You can learn more about the meaning and importance of the land back movement with this video and feel empowered to explore other resources as well.
If you’d like to learn more, Water Watchers also has a Solidarity Resources page to support settlers & newcomers on what you can do to become an ally or deepen your allyship journey.
Overall, the phrase “so-called Canada” is deeply rooted in the struggle for Indigenous sovereignty post-colonial contact. But there’s more behind its popularization as a phrase in climate justice, racial justice, and anti-poverty movements. Saying “so-called Canada” is a way to name and confront the unjust systems of colonialism, capitalism, and white supremacy that dominate our lives – systems that fueled the injustices throughout the so-called founding of Canada and systems that are the root causes of the climate crisis.
The climate crisis isn’t a technological problem or an economic problem. It is at its core a relationship problem, resulting from a breakdown in our relationships with each other and with the lands & waters that sustain us. It is a colonial worldview that positions us as exploiters of the natural world which pushed us into this current climate reality. It has resulted in an economy structurally ill-equipped to respect land, labour, and human dignity. It has created a country symbolizing short-term material prosperity for some and potential annihilation for others, including the suffering of the masses climate change impacts continue to manifest.
Ultimately, facing the reality of the phrase “so-called Canada” demands better from Canada and implores us to move toward something different. We invite you to build it with us.
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