Warning: The story below contains details of residential schools that may be upsetting. Canada’s Indian Residential School Survivors and Family Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day at 1-866-925-4419.
“Nothing to celebrate.” That is the message from many Indigenous people across Canada, which is marking its national Canada Day holiday on Thursday only weeks after hundreds of Indigenous children’s remains were discovered in unmarked graves.
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The remains were discovered in preliminary searches at the sites of former “residential schools” – forced-assimilation institutions at which Indigenous children were subjected to physical and sexual violence, psychological harm, starvation, and other forms of abuse.
In the days leading up to Canada Day, Indigenous community leaders and advocates have urged people to cancel any celebrations. Instead, they are asking for the day to be one to reflect on the real history of Canada and to support Indigenous people.
“We need to recognize there is nothing to celebrate about this country right now, especially considering the empty words and inaction of the @JustinTrudeau government. It’s a day where we can mobilize to figure out how we can make this country one that IS worth celebrating,” Indigenous novelist David A Robertson wrote on Twitter.
The Oshkaatisak Council of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents dozens of First Nations across northern Ontario, said it would not acknowledge Canada Day and instead plans to “wear orange and spread awareness about the shameful history of Indian Residential Schools and the devastating legacy that continues today”.
We need to recognize there is nothing to celebrate about this country right now, especially considering the empty words and inaction of the @JustinTrudeau government. It’s a day where we can mobilize to figure out how we can make this country one that IS worth celebrating. /6
— David A. Robertson (@DaveAlexRoberts) June 27, 2021
“As a nation of Indigenous Peoples, we must stand strong and shout this out to the rest of Canada. This country’s true history is finally being revealed, and it’s time to stand together and demand justice and accountability,” Oshkaatisak Council member Mallory Solomon, of Constance Lake First Nation, said in a statement on Tuesday.
Several Canadian cities have scrapped their Canada Day celebrations in response to the recent discoveries of 215 Indigenous children’s remains at Kamloops Indian Residential School in the province of British Columbia (BC) and as many as 751 unmarked graves at Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan.
Chief Jennifer Bone of Sioux Valley Dakota Nation, in the central province of Manitoba, also said in June that the community believes 104 potential graves exist in three cemeteries at the site of the Brandon Residential School, which was open from 1895 to 1972.
Canada’s residential school system operated from the late 1800s until the 1990s. It was part of a wider colonial project that aimed to take over Indigenous lands and forcibly assimilate First Nation, Metis and Inuit children into mainstream Canadian society. Various churches, including most notably the Roman Catholic Church, ran at least 139 residential schools across Canada.
Indigenous people across Canada, particularly residential school survivors and their families, have experienced renewed trauma since the unmarked graves were discovered, while years-long calls for real accountability and justice from Ottawa and the Catholic Church have grown louder.
“As First Nations mourn and in light of the challenging moment we are in as a Canadian nation following the discovery of the remains of 215 children at a former Residential School, Council has decided to take the time to explore new possibilities, instead of the previously planned virtual Canada Day broadcast,” said Lisa Helps, the mayor of Victoria, BC, on June 11.
Dave Ryan, the mayor of Pickering, Ontario, about 40km (25 miles) east of Toronto, said the city would focus on “education, reconciliation and reflection” on Canada Day. City flags would also be flown at half-mast from June 30 to July 2, Ryan said in a video shared on social media.
“It does not feel like the time to celebrate,” the council in Dawson City, Yukon, which also cancelled its Canada Day celebrations, said in a statement, as reported by CBC News.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said last week that Canada Day would be a time for Canadians to reflect “on reconciliation, on our relationship with Indigenous peoples and how it has evolved and how it needs to continue to evolve rapidly”.
“I think this Canada Day, it will be a time of reflection on what we’ve achieved as a country but on what more we have to do,” he told reporters.
Not everyone supports the call to cancel Canada Day, however, such as federal Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole, who said he is “concerned that injustices in our past or in the present are too often seized upon by a small group of activist voices who use it to attack the very idea of Canada itself”.
“As someone who has served Canada and will soon ask for the trust to lead our country, I can’t stay silent when people want to cancel Canada Day. I am very proud to be Canadian and I know most people are,” O’Toole wrote in a Facebook post.
“We are not a perfect country. No country is. We must acknowledge where we have fallen short. There is a difference between legitimate criticism and always choosing to run Canada down.”
But Idle No More, an Indigenous-led grassroots movement that is leading Cancel Canada Day protests across the country, said cancelling the events was “the bare minimum recognition” following the discovery of the unmarked graves.
The group said at least 50 municipalities have decided to cancel Canada Day events so far this year.
“It is heartening to see 50 municipalities cancelling Canada Day out of respect for the grief Indigenous peoples are going through. Every other city and town should follow suit,” Idle No More co-founder Sheelah McLean said in a statement on Monday. “Stolen Indigenous land and stolen Indigenous lives are not things to celebrate.”