Interview with new citizen Joy Abasta on Canada Day, Indigenous Peoples, and colonization
In advance of Canada Day, the Institute for Canadian Citizenship (ICC) spoke with Joy Abasta, a new Canadian citizen originally from the Philippines, about what Canada Day means to her and how she planned to mark the day.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
ICC: How are you planning on celebrating Canada Day?
Joy Abasta: I’ve been doing a lot of reflection, with Indigenous people’s day being June 21st and it being so close to Canada Day, which is July 1st. Before, I always celebrated Canada Day because as an immigrant it feels like you can finally celebrate with Canadians. Like I’m here and everybody’s free and we are all trying to be fair and polite, and we are known from the other parts of the world as friendly, and always saying ‘thank you’ and ‘sorry.’ But when I started school in September 2019 and dived into Indigenous studies, that’s when I realized that there’s a particularly dark history in Canada. Now, I feel a bit conflicted.
My partner and I were just talking this morning…We asked ourselves how we can celebrate both Indigenous cultures and Canada being Canada, and he said that, ‘oh, you know what? We can go for a drive in Squamish because there’s a lot of history in Squamish, as well. And then we can go and find some Indigenous installation art or hikes and whatnot.’ Also, there’s an app that was created by Dr. Rudy Reimer, it’s called the ímesh app. If you open the app, it’s going to tell you which territory you’re on while you’re walking. It’s going to tell you what the name is and what their traditional work is, so for example, berry picking, or fishing and what not. So we’ll probably do that.
What initially drove you to learn about Indigenous cultures and communities?
I moved here in 2014, and when I moved here I didn’t know anything about Indigenous culture. I started to volunteer at different organizations and in 2016, I volunteered at the Vancouver Community Policing Centre in the west end. They were so big about this walk for reconciliation, so I signed up for that because I needed my volunteer hours for the month, and then I realized it’s for the Indigenous communities. I think that’s when it all really started for me, it opened up the conversation and curiosity.
Before I moved here, I had heard so much good stuff about Canada; that, ‘hey, this is better than the United States because of health care,’ and then when I landed here and found out what I did at the policing centre, I was exposed to what happened to Indigenous cultures and what has happened to them — the assimilation, the genocide. It was horrifying. It’s always hard to discuss, even with my students at school, because I’m also just learning. But we all have to talk about those difficult histories. Since then, every time I go out and discover or explore a new city in Canada, I try to make it a point to see if there’s an Indigenous installation art, or maybe a museum, or anything that celebrates the Indigenous history of the communities that live there.
What pushes you to continue this learning?
I see similarities with what happened in Canada and in the Philippines. Because the Philippines were also colonized by the Spaniards. And being in the Philippines, I’d always heard about the Philippines being colonized, but that’s basically it. I didn’t realize the weight of that term until I moved here, until I realized what happened with colonization and Indigenous people in Canada. But Canada has been my home, and maybe I’m projecting, but I also want to be an ally of Indigenous people. I can never connect with the trauma they had, but as a student of public health — and hopefully eventually to become a public health official — I think it’s really important for my career to always be thinking about BIPOC. Here in Vancouver, or here in British Columbia, there’s still not a lot of conversations happening, so I wanted to become an ally to try to scratch the surface, and try to influence the people around me to reconsider what’s happening around us. A lot of the time people can ignore what’s happening to other people around them, especially if they’re not of similar backgrounds or cultures.
How did you learn about Indigenous communities and cultures?
If I go somewhere else, like Whistler, I’ll always go to museums that include Indigenous history and culture. I think museums were my initial resource on Indigenous people. Then I started school in September of 2019, and I owe it to the professors and supervisors that I had, because I’m also a TA [teacher’s assistant] for Indigenous studies. Dr. Joyce Schneider and Dr. Rudy Reimer and Dr. Madeline Knickerbocker are very knowledgeable about Indigenous studies. Drs. Rudy and Joyce are members of the Indigenous community and Madeline is a white settler who has been doing about 10 years of work on Stó:lō communities in British Columbia. I”m really grateful I was able to have these sources.
How is celebrating Indigenous cultures part of celebrating Canada Day? How is it not?
We must celebrate Indigenous culture and Indigenous people and communities on Canada Day. I don’t know if celebrate is the correct term, but basically just acknowledging that they were here first, for at least 12,000 years before the white settlers or the colonizers. What can we do with reconciliation and other acts of decolonization every day so that we can make celebrating Canada Day worth it.
How have you been connecting with Indigenous culture and art during the pandemic?
It’s been hard, of course. There’s a ton of resources online and I was fortunate enough to still be a TA, so as I go along I still feel I’m connected to my allyship with the Indigenous people. So what I’ve done this summer so far is learning how to say specific words or terms in an Indigenous language. I think there’s about 600+ Indigenous languages in Canada, but here in Vancouver the language is Hul’q’umi’num’. I’m trying to learn how to say hello and ‘thank you, you know, very basic words in their language. Indigenous languages are dying; not a lot of Indigenous Peoples know how to use the languages, because of colonization and assimilation. So, for me, I just want to try to make an effort to learn these common terms because language is a really big part of everyone’s culture.