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By Arun Kumar Sahu*

On July 1st Canada celebrated her 150th centenary. The day marked the creation of Canada as a new, self-governing federation, consisting of the provinces New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario and Quebec as per the British North America Act (BNA) of 1867. Prince Charles and Camila Parker-Bowles, representing Queen Elizabeth II as the head of the Commonwealth, joined Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and wife Sophie Trudeau in the celebrations at Parliament Hill.

Not all Canadians celebrate and rejoice in Canada’s 150th. Many members of the indigenous population, historically called “Indians”(the First Nations, Inuit, and Métis) object and boycott this celebration. They believe that their history in this land has been of 14,000 years and through the BNA the new provinces usurped their land, territory and resources. They resent the expansion of church-run residential schools over almost a hundred years beginning in the late nineteenth century, which forcibly removed about 150,000 aboriginal children from their families for assimilation into the dominant Canadian culture. An estimated 6,000 students died in these schools. Leaders of the indigenous community term this “cultural genocide”. Today, the 1.4 million strong indigenous people constitute about 4.3% of the Canadian population.

Prime Minister Trudeau, on the occasion, recognising this blotch on Canadian history, said that Canada was a land of “indigenous peoples, settlers, and newcomers” and Canada’s diversity has always been central to its success. Canada is strong “not in spite of its differences, but because of them”. He also acknowledged, “For many, today is not an occasion for celebration… indigenous peoples in this country have faced oppression for centuries. As a society, we must acknowledge and apologize for past wrongs, and chart a path forward and work towards reconciliation, which reflects a deep Canadian tradition – the belief that better is always possible.”

A few days ago, I was invited to a scholarly seminar to share our experience of managing diversity in India. As I built my arguments using our own history of “accommodation” and “integration” of the various ethnic groups in India, I was told that in India’s case, the colonizers have already left in 1947, but in Canada’s case, the occupiers are still occupying its vast land and celebrating the 150th centenary of the confederation. Never before had I thought of the Canadian issue in terms of this binary of the “occupier” and the “occupied”.

As Shankar Mahadevan sang the iconic Rangabati of western Odisha at the inauguration of the 22nd Asian Athletics Championships in Bhubaneswar, surrounded by dancers in folk attire, my thoughts reverted to our own people of nature in the forests, mountains and rivers, the cultural diversity that they represent; their wellbeing, continual growth and prosperity. Undoubtedly, we have shown wisdom in not insisting on their assimilation to a dominant culture, instead creating constitutional structures and safeguards for gradual and voluntary accommodation and integration.

In India, we are stratified in innumerable layers both horizontally and vertically, on the basis of all conceivable parameters: economy, geography, colour, creed, language, faith, ideologies, gender, purity and ethnicity. Broadly, we have managed harmony and resilience, visiting and revisiting our civilizational adage “unity in diversity”, but on occasion we have also faltered, threatening the very foundation of our cultural harmony and social stability.

We are fortunate that “foreign occupation” does not figure in our day-to-day social discourse any more. It does not hover over our political stability. Nevertheless, social harmony is like a foetus: it rests in the womb of diversity and unless nurtured carefully, miscarriage is always a possibility. Therefore, we must not take it for granted. “Eternal vigilance” is the price of democracy and all of us must pay this price, remain alert for the sake of the security and stability of not only our collective whole but also our future prosperity. As we guard our diversity, I only hope that we remember Bapuji, who once said, “Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and the test of our civilisation.”


*Arun Kumar Sahu is the Deputy High Commissioner of India to Canada. He may be contacted at [email protected]

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