Text: We need to talk about Canada Day. Background: Ottawa skyline and two women in orange shirts.

We Need To Talk About Canada Day

*Trigger Warning: This article contains information regarding the treatment of Indigenous peoples in residential schools and mentions information regarding sexual assault*

Land Acknowledgement

Before reading this article, it is important to take some time to acknowledge the land on which we live on. This article is written on land which is the traditional, unceded, unsurrendered Territory of the Algonquin Anishinabek people, whose presence here reaches back to time immemorial. We are grateful to have the opportunity to be present on this territory. For those of us who are settlers on this land it is incredibly important to not only acknowledge this, but to commit to continued learning and to be allies to the Algonquin Anishinabek people. It is also important to understand that colonialism and patriarchy are inexplicably linked. As a result, we cannot combat violence against women without acknowledging these connections.

If you are curious about your local Indigenous history, you can visit native-land.ca.  

At Shelter Movers, our mission is to support, help, and believe survivors of abuse. The Indigenous people of this land are survivors of systematic abuse. Within this vein, it is important to talk about the recent news surrounding the discovery of 215 graves at the Kamloops residential school in BC and the discovery of 751 unmarked graves at the Marieval residential school in Saskatchewan. As a result of these discoveries, there has also been a trending conversation on what should happen to Canada Day. Should the celebrations continue?

So the big question is…

Why do some people want to #CancelCanadaDay?

As the first city to cancel Canada Day celebrations, Victoria, BC unanimously voted to drop their planned virtual Canada Day broadcast. Victoria mayor Lisa Helps stated that the city will not be cancelling the celebrations forever but will work with local First Nations to create a television broadcast that will reflect on what it means to be Canadian. Helps also stated that the city wants to provide the community an opportunity for thoughtful reflection. 

When considering changes to their Canada Day plans, officials in Victoria, BC consulted local Indigenous individuals who usually participate in Canada Day celebrations. The discussion brought to light that local Indigenous communities are grieving and felt that they would be unable to participate this year given the circumstances. This feeling seems to be common among Indigenous communities throughout Canada. 

In an article for the Toronto Star, Xaxli’p Chief Colleen Jacob of the St’at’imc Nation in BC commented: “In light of the confirmation of the unmarked graves and its association with the Canadian government, the Queen and church involvement, it would be appropriate to acknowledge this as a reminder on Canada Day. It should be recognized as a day of mourning for our Indigenous people and all that we had to endure throughout the history of Canada.” 

In short, the calls to cancel Canada Day stem from the idea that it would be insensitive to continue with traditional ways of celebrating Canada Day when communities are mourning. Additionally, there is sentiment that it would be more appropriate to change how Canada Day is celebrated: from an exclamation of pride to a day of mourning in order to make space to acknowledge that Canada has a dark history. 

Other cities in Canada are responding in a similar way to Victoria. For example, Cambridge, ON, will have a moment of silence for the children who were found at Kamloops and are asking people to be respectful and to learn more about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls for action. Leaders of three northern Saskatchewan communities have paused their celebrations and instead chose to focus on marking National Indigenous People’s Day (which was June 21). At time of writing, Kelowna, BC, and Belleville, ON, have also cancelled their celebrations.

Why do some people want to continue to celebrate Canada Day?

On the other side of the issue, some claim that cancelling Canada Day would fuel more separation between the Indigenous people of this land and non-Indigenous people. In an interview for the Toronto Star, Paul Michel,  a special advisor to the president of Indigenous matters at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC, stated that “the way to solve this is to come together. I think it’s an excellent platform. I will always celebrate Canada Day because I know lots of our allies are non-Indigenous and they stand beside us. It would be tragic if we say ‘eliminate Canada Day,’ because then I think the ugliness, the negative and the racism rules.” 

Some individuals worry that all of the positive elements of Canada — for example, free healthcare, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion– will be drowned out by all of the horrible elements that are a part of our history. However, it is still important to be mindful of the fact that residential schools and the legacy of these government-run programs are still being felt. As a result, we cannot dismiss Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples as history

It seems that the goal would be to continue to mark Canada Day, but alter it to better reflect the realities of our country. And to work towards strengthening the relationship between non-Indigenous peoples and the Indigenous people of this land in a way that facilitates reconciliation. 

In order to provide some context, it is important to talk about the history of residential schools in conjunction with their legacy. The last residential school in Canada closed in 1996, but the impact of these schools is still felt within Indigenous communities. 

 Residential schools ran from the 1870s to the 1990s in Canada. These schools were part of a systematic federal policy to assimilate Indigenous children into European cultures, based on the racist assumption that the cultures of Indigenous peoples were inferior to European culture. This program was led by Canada’s first Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) estimates that at least 150,000 First Nation, Métis, and Inuit students passed through the system. 

The TRC’s Missing Children Project, as of 2014, identified 3,201 unnamed and named deaths. Unfortunately, there are massive gaps in the records of deceased students, so it is difficult to make an accurate estimation. As a result, the true numbers, as we are learning, could be much higher. According to the TRC report, in 32% of deaths, the government and the schools did not record the name of the student who died. For 49% of deaths, the government and the schools did not record the cause of death. Indigenous children in residential schools died at a far higher rate than school-aged children in the general population. The Canadian government never established an adequate set of standards and regulations to guarantee the health and safety of children in residential school systems, nor did it adequately enforce any minimal standards that it did establish. This has been attributed to the government wanting to keep the costs of residential schools to a minimum. 

Additionally, the residential schools were not well maintained. The staff was limited and often poorly trained. Buildings were not well maintained. The food given to the children was often meagre and of poor quality. The Indigenous cultures of the children were suppressed and demeaned. As taken from the TRC “What We Have Learned” report: “child neglect was institutionalized, and the lack of supervision created situations where students were prey to sexual and physical abusers.”

According to the same TRC report, the residential schools were an essential element of Canada’s Aboriginal policy to, through a process of assimilation, “cause Aboriginal peoples to cease to exist as distinct legal, social, cultural, religious, and racial entities in Canada. … These measures were part of a coherent policy to eliminate Aboriginal people as distinct peoples and to assimilate them into the Canadian mainstream against their will.” 

The legacy of these residential schools is still being felt in Indigenous communities. A particularly poignant example of this is the rates at which Indigenous women and girls are disproportionately impacted by violent and non-violent victimization compared to all population groups in Canada. A key part of this violence is intimate partner violence (IPV), and within this context, women are more likely to experience forms of violence considered to be severe. This violence cannot be separated from the intergenerational trauma that exists in Indigenous communities, nor can it be separated from the structural and systematic realities that increase Indigenous women’s risk of facing various forms of violence.

What can I do now?

Whether you decide to celebrate Canada Day this year or not, consider taking some time to reflect on our colonial history and the impact it has had and continues to have on Indigenous communities. An excellent place to start is by reading the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Reports. Consider wearing an orange T-shirt to commemorate those who experienced and died in residential schools and to pledge your commitment to the process of reconciliation. Take some time to learn more about concepts like the sixties scoop, the Indian Act of 1867, the boil water crises across Canada, and the #IdleNoMore movement. 

You can also take a closer look at StatsCan’s statistics on Indigenous peoples. But remember that there are real people behind these numbers, and their stories cannot be fully told through statistical analysis. Another great way to learn more is by reading. Indigo created a comprehensive list of books featuring Indigenous voices. If you want to support a local book store instead, you can take a look at Octopus Books, which has a list of books specifically for National Indigenous Peoples Day 2021 and includes a list of books suitable for children. These are just a few of the things you could do to learn more about our history in Canada. There are many more opportunities for learning that are not listed here.

We recognize that this is a difficult time for Indigenous communities across the country. If you need to talk to someone, please consider taking a look at these resources: 

National Indian Residential School Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419

Crisis Services Canada: 1-833-456-4566 or text 45645 

Hope For Wellness Helpline (Culturally sensitive helpline for the Indigenous Community): 1-855-242-3310 – online chat available too

Mental Health Crisis Line: 1-866-996-0991

Learn more about mental health and find more resources on the Canadian Mental Health Association website.

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