This is National Aboriginal Day and we are just 10 days away from Canada Day. So it is a suitable time to reflect on Canada 150, or — as Inuk filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril rightly pointed out in one of the recent Walrus Talks — Canada 15,000. After all, before the two “founding nations” of Canada appeared on the scene in the 16th century, the real founding nations had been here for 14,000 years.
Just as indigenous people did not celebrate in 1992 the 500th anniversary of the “discovery” of the Americas by Columbus, I can’t imagine there will be many celebrating Canada’s 150th birthday.
And who can blame them? The harm inflicted on the indigenous people of the Americas in the past 500 years has been devastating, as has been the history of the relationship between Canada and its indigenous people since 1867, as demonstrated in the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
While we can’t undo that history — and indeed need to face it and accept it — we can create a different story for the next 150 years, and there is no better time to be thinking about this than right now. Moreover, in doing so, we can acknowledge an approach credited to indigenous ways of thinking, namely to plan for the seventh generation. Since a generation is 20 to 25 years, seven generations would take us out about 150 years.
As a long-time planner and futurist, I am well aware of the difficulty of planning for a time horizon of 150 years, or even 50 years. Sadly, our political cycles do not reflect the reality of the seventh-generation viewpoint. Indeed, they barely reflect the next generation.
But here are some ways to think about what connects the present to the next 100 years or more, and why today’s decisions are so important for the long term.
First, consider that the buildings and infrastructure we create are with us for 50 to 100 years or more. The suburban sprawl we have created since the 1950s still shapes our way of life, our transportation systems, our energy use and our impacts on human and ecosystem health, and will do so for decades to come.
Next, recognize that a female fetus in her mother’s womb today contains within her developing ovaries the eggs that one day, some 20 years hence, will be her children. If those infants live to be 80 — our current life expectancy, although by no means predictive — then the mother of that yet-to-be-born infant carries within her the eggs that will be her elderly grandchildren about 100 years ahead.
Some of our most toxic pollutants are called persistent organic pollutants because they were designed to be persistent; unfortunately, this means that we and our descendants will carry body burdens of them throughout our lives.
The carbon dioxide we are spewing out — and that Donald Trump wants to increase — has an atmospheric lifetime of up to 200 years, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and will thus continue to overheat the planet.
And the species extinctions we are creating at 10 to 100 times the base rate over the past 10,000 years, are forever.
But perhaps the new B.C. government, more attuned as it is to environmental sustainability and social justice, could use the opportunity afforded by Canada 15,000/150 to initiate a conversation — in partnership with indigenous people in particular — about our long-term responsibilities and our duty to future generations.
Fundamentally, it is unethical for us to consume the resources and harm the natural systems that our descendants will depend upon for their own well-being; this is the ethical principle of intergenerational justice.
Arguably, it is also unethical for us to appropriate ecosystems and resources that other species require for their own survival; the Earth is not “ours” alone, we share it with many other species, many of which we depend upon for our own survival.
So, much as we are doing here in Victoria with our “Conversations for a One Planet Region” as we mark Canada 15,000/150, let’s think about the next 150 years, the next seven generations, and how we ensure a more healthy, just and sustainable life for them.
Dr. Trevor Hancock is a professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s school of public health and social policy.