Why some Canadians aren’t celebrating Canada Day this year

Kateland Abbigail/Courtesy of Idle No More
An Indigenous advocate speaks at a Cancel Canada Day rally organized by Idle No More in Vancouver, British Columbia, on July 1, 2020. Calls to cancel Canada Day celebrations this year have gained traction after the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves of Indigenous children at a pair of residential schools.

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Canada Day, Canada’s equivalent to the American Independence Day, is July 1. But after the recent discovery of the remains of hundreds of Indigenous children at former residential schools designed to eliminate their cultures, a national debate has arisen over whether it’s appropriate to celebrate the country right now.

For Indigenous communities, the cruel reality of residential schools has long been a well-known truth, one that has rippled through their families time and time again. But for non-Indigenous Canadians, the revelations have delivered a reckoning that many say is long overdue.

Why We Wrote This

Since the remains of Indigenous children were found at residential schools, Canadians have been struggling to answer: What does it mean to celebrate a nation with such clear moral failings in its past?

A few prominent cities, like Victoria and Fredericton – the capitals of British Columbia and New Brunswick, respectively – canceled their Canada Day festivities. “How could we have a celebration when our neighbors – on whose homelands [Victoria] was built – were suffering?” Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps said.

Overall, more than 50 municipalities have canceled their Canada Day celebrations. But most are still going ahead, with the approval of a majority of Canadians.

“Canada is a good country, and I don’t think we should be tearing it apart,” says Ellis Ross, former Haisla Nation chief councilor. “We should be thinking, ‘How do we build it up together?’”

On a typical July 1, communities across Canada light up in a sea of red and white as fireworks fill the sky and residents gather to celebrate Canada Day, often described as the Canadian Fourth of July.

But this year, with the recent discovery of the remains of hundreds of Indigenous children at former residential schools designed to eliminate their cultures, many cities and towns now plan to scale back or cancel Canada Day celebrations outright to make space for those grieving the lost.

For Indigenous communities, the cruel reality of residential schools has long been a well-known truth, one that has rippled through their families time and time again. But for non-Indigenous Canadians, the revelations have delivered a reckoning that many say is long overdue.

Why We Wrote This

Since the remains of Indigenous children were found at residential schools, Canadians have been struggling to answer: What does it mean to celebrate a nation with such clear moral failings in its past?

It has brought many of them to grapple with the same questions that Indigenous peoples have been asking for decades: How do we weigh the good of Canada’s past – the things that deliver a sense of national pride – against the bad? Should the country behind these atrocities even be celebrated?

Judy Wilson is one of the many Indigenous leaders who thinks that Canada Day should be canceled. She is kúkpi7 (chief) of the Neskonlith Indian Band, located just 30 miles from the Kamloops Indian Residential School in Kamloops, British Columbia, where the remains of 215 Indigenous children were found in late May. That discovery was followed by the location of 751 unmarked graves at the Marieval Indian Residential School in Marieval, Saskatchewan, last week.

“What is there to celebrate at this point?” she asks. “How do you move forward with such horrific genocide – continued genocide – where it’s been known but not really spoken of or taken seriously outside of [Indigenous] communities?”

Ms. Wilson’s perspective is not uncommon among Indigenous people. Indeed, Canada Day itself is already not widely celebrated in First Nations, and some, including Ms. Wilson, reject Canadian identity entirely, describing their relationship to Canada as “adversarial.”

Similar friction between Indigenous peoples and the countries that colonized their homelands can be seen around the world. In the United States, many Native Hawaiians view the Fourth of July as a reminder of their loss of sovereignty at the hands of the American government. Likewise, Native Americans often observe a National Day of Mourning in place of Thanksgiving, reconfiguring a holiday they view as a celebration of the theft of their lands into one that honors their ancestors.

Not time to celebrate?

Although the calls to cancel Canada Day are not new, this is the first time that municipal governments are taking direct action. A few prominent cities, like Victoria and Fredericton – the capitals of British Columbia and New Brunswick, respectively – have heeded the advice of Indigenous partners and canceled their Canada Day festivities.

“How could we have a celebration when our neighbors – on whose homelands [Victoria] was built – were suffering?” Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps said in a statement to the press. “And how could we hold a Canada Day celebration without the Lekwungen people who have been part of the event for the last decade?”

Courtesy of Idle No More
An Indigenous advocate speaks at a Cancel Canada Day rally in Vancouver, British Columbia, on July 1, 2020. More than 50 cities and towns have opted to cancel their Canada Day celebrations this year.

In total, more than 50 municipalities across Canada have canceled July 1 celebrations, according to Indigenous rights group Idle No More.

However, not everyone shares such views, especially outside Indigenous communities. A Leger poll found that a large majority of Canadians oppose canceling Canada Day celebrations, and most major Canadian cities – including Toronto, Montreal, and Ottawa, the Canadian capital – have kept their existing plans in place. Some critics, including British Columbia Premier John Horgan and Conservative leader Erin O’Toole, have argued that the calls to cancel Canada Day celebrations are counterproductive and have likened them to “cancel culture.”

“If you look at the definition of reconciliation, what it means is to bring two parties back together. [Canceling Canada Day] goes against the definition of reconciliation,” says Ellis Ross, former Haisla Nation chief councilor and a Liberal member of British Columbia’s provincial parliament.

Mr. Ross pointed at Kamloops as an example, where Rosanne Casimir, kúkpi7 (chief) of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc – the nation that found the unmarked graves at the Kamloops residential school – is collaborating with the city to “incorporate messaging into this year’s virtual Canada Day event that will encourage education on Indigenous culture and heritage,” according to a statement released by the city.

“Canada is a good country, and I don’t think we should be tearing it apart,” Mr. Ross says. “We should be thinking, ‘How do we build it up together?’”

But for Sara Cadeau, an Idle No More organizer of Anishinaabe descent, canceling Canada Day and recognizing the past and present flaws in Canada’s colonial system is a necessary part of building the country up. She is co-leading a #CancelCanadaDay rally in Vancouver on July 1 with fellow Idle No More organizer and Nehiyaw hip-hop artist Dakota Bear, one of many protests taking place across the country. 

Spearheaded by Idle No More and building off the same event from last year, the movement aims to amplify the work of Indigenous leaders, inspire non-Indigenous people to action, and “start a peaceful revolution,” according to Mr. Bear.

“We cannot fix ourselves until we acknowledge what’s broken,” Ms. Cadeau says. “It’s better to focus on the beautiful and rebuild what’s beautiful. It’s important to empower everyone to take their roles and responsibilities, whatever they may be. … That being said, we are under a constant whack-a-mole. Every single time they give some half-cooked apology, they’re out there … trying to disempower Indigenous leadership. They’re out there right now, smashing on Indigenous people who are protecting [the environment].”

“We will continue to stand and rise … as long as this duplicity is ongoing,” she adds. “Part of that is not celebrating Canada Day.”

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