Happy Canada Day

Posted by Sylvia Olsen on

This isn’t about knitting. It’s about Canada.


We once had a Prime Minister with a favourite Cowichan sweater. (Trudeau's Christmas card 1981)

In a way, I suppose it’s about knitting. Most of my adult life I have been obsessed with Coast Salish knitting and it’s my Coast Salish connection that is at the heart of my Canada Day message—loose connection I suppose, but it’s there.

In 1972 I married a Coast Salish man and moved to Tsartlip First Nation. I was 17 years old. I didn’t think much about what it would be like living on a reserve. I was in love. We bought a little trailer and pulled it onto a hillside behind Carl’s parent’s house overlooking the most glorious Indian Bay and west across to the Malahat hills. What could have been better? 

The next 35 years or so living on an Indian reserve gave me a different sense of Canada than most other blond Canadians.

When I was a teenager my childhood friends went off to Europe with backpacks. I became a wife, learned to make wool and knit Cowichan sweaters. They went to university. I opened a Cowichan sweater shop behind our house in Tsartlip. They met people from all over the world who thought that Canada was the best country in the world. They took classes from professors who told them that Canada had an honourable history…the best in the world. 

I visited my friends and family on Indian reserves around BC. I sat in tiny dilapidated houses and worried that the tin heater would ignite the room—how would I get out? I went outside to the bathroom (overstatement—no bath in the rooms out there). I listened to drunk people talk about Kuper Island residential school. They told stories about how the nasty Brother Terry made them sit alone, with no supper, watching the staff eat potatoes and gravy, while the Brother walked by every now and again and cuffed them across the head.

I missed the part about Canada being the best country in the world. My first education took place in a different country altogether. I was educated on the other side of the ditch. Many of the people I hung out with didn’t even want to be called Canadians. “I want another name,” my friend Sandy told me. “I want to be a Turtle Islander. This is my land but it is not my country. Not the way it is.”


I went to university as an adult to find answers to my questions. In truth all my queries can be summarized in my one overarching question, “How the hell could this happen in Canada?” By this I meant the difference between the living conditions on the reserves I hung out in and the middle class neighbourhoods where my white friends lived.

When I was older still I began to travel around the world. I began to get a bigger picture of Canada. It’s a pretty spectacular country. But it looks much better looking from the outside in than from the inside of a ramshackle house on an Indian reserve looking out—especially in 1975.

From our trip across the country there is only one conclusion--Canada is a spectacular country.



Now I’m doing a Phd and I’m studying the history of housing on Canadian reserves in the 20th century. It’s a nasty story. I can’t find much good about Canada in documents. At least I can’t find much that’s smart about Canada. I can’t find many good decisions. Not in the material I’m reading. Not about on-reserve housing. Not in the 20th century.


My son Adam, talking to a crowd about food security.

But things are changing on reserves across the country. First Nations people are working hard, building communities, getting educated, learning their languages, dancing, singing, protesting, thinking, becoming wealthy, building the houses they want, standing toe-to-toe, looking eye-to-eye with other Canadians.

The Canadian government is loosening its grip on First Nations people, control is shifting, First Nations leaders can lead, First Nations people can make decisions about their own well-being. There’s still a long, long way to go, but I am grateful to have lived long enough to see the shift begin. It’s like a wave of fresh water washing over this country. I am excited and relieved…it has been such a long time coming.

The bounty in a smokehouse seemed like a great way to express the beauty of our country.

First Nations have always challenged Canadians…they have been a prick in the side, a dent in the shiny veneer of Canadian pride. First Nations make us feel uncomfortable with our claim to being the best country in the world. Even the United Nations rebukes us—you would be the best country, it says, if it weren’t for your treatment of indigenous people.

Many of my First Nations family and friends are celebrating Canada Day. There is no Turtle Island. There never will be. But there is hope that what was all Indian territory can have a new way of sharing…where the first people have a legitimate space and a legitimate voice…and that’s what’s needed if First Nations people are going to feel like Canadians.


Many of my mainstream family and friends celebrated Aboriginal Day last month. This is not a conquered country. This is a shared space and we are figuring that out, finally. That’s what’s needed if we are going to claim to be the best country in the world.





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