The Aurora Borealis, but make it racist.
That was, I assume, the marketing pitch behind the “Northern Lights”—a free, half-hour, shamelessly unhinged light show projected on the front of the Parliament building in Ottawa, purporting to teach unsuspecting onlookers about the history of our great nation.
Every night this summer, until September 8, dutiful patriots can sear a full dose of rabid jingoism directly onto their retinas from the comfort of a grassy knoll—beginning with the “great collaborations” between Indigenous peoples and European settlers and ending with a eugenicist responsible for the sterilization of thousands of Canadians.
When a friend of mine in Ottawa suggested we go see a “sort-of racist light show” after learning I’d be in town for a couple days, I was intrigued. How could Canada make a light show racist? I thought, idiotically. Sure, this country has a deeply problematic history, but I figured we’d watch a couple slow-motion shots of Wayne Gretzky and go home.
Stupid, stupid, stupid.
The first sign that something was off was the CUBE.
The CUBE—I am not stylizing here, this is literally how the government website describes it—is a massive box covered in LED screens displaying human-style blob figures waving their appendages feverishly. Dozens of cursed Gumbies, synchronized in turbulent dance.
Nice, I thought. This is what Canada means to me.
It was only later I realized the gelatinous shapes were real children, tracked by cameras near the CUBE, their movements projected onto the CUBE, wholly enraptured by the CUBE.
Before I had time to be unsettled, a husky-voiced announcer yelled at us that the show was presented by insurance giant Manulife, and we were off.
The show started with flames consuming Parliament, a reference to the unsolved 1916 fire that destroyed the entire centre block.
If the show ended right there, it would’ve been stellar. The graphics were rad, the announcer was hype, and everyone got to see our government burn to the ground.
But it continued.
The next scene told us about the “foundations of the nation,” and hoo boy, you can probably guess where this is going.
“For thousands of years, people from far and near chose to call the true north, strong and free, home.” OK…
“A land of beauty and great wealth, in resources and people.” Sure…
“Mutual interest”— uh-oh.—“and the desire for fur, tools and knowledge, drove the first great collaborations.” There it is!
“Great collaborations” is, obviously, a mild way of describing the actions of the racist, genocidal maniacs who decided Canada belonged to them because they had lighter skin and guns, the effects of which—combined with those of the racist, genocidal maniacs who came after them—are still heaping intergenerational trauma on First Nations peoples.
This was going to suck.
Alright, I thought. We’re off to a rough start. But maybe there’ll be a “but” here—something to let us know the first explorers were not just agreeable dudes looking for beaver pelts and a chill time.
There wasn’t a “but.”
“Europeans were drawn by the bounty of the sea,” the announcer continued. “French settlers transformed the land they called ‘Acadia.’”
Did it have a name before that? Who cares!
“Turmoil in Europe reached across the Atlantic. Families—whole communities—were uprooted and exiled.”
Wow, sounds bad. At least they knew not to do that to anyone else.
We were then treated to a reenactment of the second-favourite topic of Canadians visiting America (after Superman): The War of 1812.
“Those who remained loyal to the British Crown after America’s struggle for independence” (cowards, nerds) “fled north, and found a new home,” the announcer said.
“As its population grew, the United States eyed the North,” the announcer boomed, as sinister music played.
It was around this point I realized that this show existed solely to reaffirm a certain demographic of Canadians’ dumbest ideas about themselves—the notion that because we have a functioning healthcare system and a leader on the cover of Rolling Stone, we’re better than Americans. Hell, better than the rest of the world!
It’s this toxic belief—did you know Canada never had slavery?—pounded into our heads from a young age—we take in more migrants than any other country!—that forms the bedrock—our leader marches in the pride parade!—for every article admonishing non-racists for not listening politely to racists, every government policy that leaves behind the most vulnerable, every uncle at Thanksgiving telling you Canada is a utopia for people of colour while systemic discrimination punishes them for existing.
Anyway, the War of 1812 happened and “hundreds of Black men who had fled north to escape slavery fought the American invasions of the Canadas,” the announcer crowed.
(Many of those fighters were enslaved here.)
“Ten thousand First Nations warriors helped seal the victory” (and were then left to die on the battlefield or herded into genocidal residential schools explicitly aimed at destroying their culture).
The show continued with a section on “Discovery and Adventure.”
“Captain George Vancouver witnessed unparalleled natural beauty while mapping on the Pacific coast late in the 18th century,” the announcer said. “He encountered prosperous, sophisticated societies.”
And, uh, don’t worry about what happened next!
The show ended with quotes from famous Canadians, such as suffragette Nellie McClung, a quote of whose was read aloud.
“I’m a believer in women,” a more feminine announcer said. “In their ability to do things, and in their influence and power.”
The announcer didn’t mention that McClung is a noted eugenicist who campaigned for “simple-minded” people not being allowed to procreate, resulting in the sterilization of thousands of Albertans from 1928 to 1972.
After Parliament was literally wrapped in a rainbow flag and the announcer gave a closing speech about freedom, the national anthem was played.
Nearly everyone watching the show—kids and adults of all ages—stood up, placed their hands over their hearts, and loudly sang along.
There wasn’t even any hockey.
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