cancelling Canada Day

Cancelling Canada Day is the right thing to do

“Canada Day has never been a happy day for us. It’s always felt like a slap in the face for Indigenous communities.”

In the wake of hundreds of unmarked graves found on the grounds of British Columbia and Saskatchewan residential schools, many are calling for Canada Day to be cancelled. It has drawn mixed reactions. Many are angry at the notion of cancelling Canada Day. Others question whether doing so is merely virtue signalling at a time when real action is required. Some are conflicted and feel it goes too far. They say that, despite the gruesome confirmation of these deaths, this remains a country that has done a lot of things right and is still worth celebrating. 

Would you go ahead with a big blow-out party if, days before, a child in your immediate family had died? Or would you cancel or severely tone down the event out of respect for that child and the family’s loss? Why should this be any different? 

Don’t look away

residential schools
Cross Lake Indian Residential School in Cross Lake, Manitoba, Feb. 1940. (Cancelling Canada Day is the right thing to do)

Until now, many Canadians remained blissfully unaware of the atrocities and the forced assimilation committed during colonialism. They were not necessarily at fault. Our education system and the way Canadian history is taught has failed students. Humans are also notorious for navel-gazing, perpetually interested in what affects them the most, often indifferent to what affects others. Indigenous Peoples in Canada have always been treated as “others.” 

Despite years of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee testimonials travelling the country and despite ample media coverage, how many Canadians took the time to really listen to them or read the final report? Here in Quebec, most thought (and many still do) that this shameful legacy had nothing to do with us, and across Canada, those high on nationalism didn’t want to be confronted with anything that can tarnish the image of the country they crafted for themselves. 

But that all ends now, because I don’t know how people can continue to feign ignorance once hundreds of unmarked graves have been found. These were just two schools. There are 128 more schools whose grounds remain to be searched. Those numbers will undoubtedly rise throughout the summer. 

Communities in mourning

A moving rendition of “O Canada” and tribute to residential school victims prior to the Winnipeg vs. Montreal hockey game on June 3 (Cancelling Canada Day is the right thing to do)

Indigenous communities across the country are in deep mourning right now. These children belonged to them. They had families and parents and siblings who cried for them, longed for them, prayed for them and never knew what happened to them. Families in perpetual limbo, in suspended grief, forever denied closure and peace. And while they’re now mourning the certitude of their loss, they’re doing so surrounded by many Canadians who seem offended by the possibility of restrained celebrations and in continued denial about the genocide this country was built on. It’s the same denial that allows for the current systemic racism and discrimination, with Indigenous children over-represented in foster care and Canadian prisons full of residential school survivors still coping with the terrible effects of their trauma. 

Given the latest gruesome revelations, is it that unreasonable to set aside the festivities and focus instead on national reflection in the hopes of real reconciliation? Is it that huge of an imposition and a sacrifice to forego the traditional flag-waving, the fireworks, the Canadian Snowbirds fly-by doing their fancy aerial tricks, in order to pay respect to children who never made it back home? 

“Actions speak louder than words”

cancelling Canada Day
Cancelling Canada Day is the right thing to do

Some say cancelling Canada Day is lazy and purposeless slacktivism. That it does nothing for the real issues Indigenous communities face. Nakuset, the executive director of the Montreal Women’s Shelter, who is organizing a public vigil and rally on July 1 to commemorate and honour these children, disagrees. 

“I want everyone to show up, because actions speaker louder than words,” she says. “I want the government to see the crowds and be forced to release these records, to help dig up these graves in residential schools.”

Nakuset believes in the power of mainstream interest forcing and shaming government officials to act. “The inquest for Joyce Echaquan happened because of protests,” she says. “It’s not us the government will listen to; it’s you guys. They’ve already shown they don’t care about us.” 

She points to the decades-long cover-ups as proof. “So many children died, and priests, nuns, Indian agents, they all said nothing, they covered it up, threw them in anonymous graves and never told their parents what happened to them. This is an institution that has no respect for Indigenous lives, and once you feel you can mistreat us and get away with it, it leads to cases like Joyce, who would have never gotten any justice if she hadn’t filmed it.”

“Drowning in grief”

John A. Macdonald statue
The John A. MacDonald statue that once stoof at Place du Canada. Photos by No Borders Media (Cancelling Canada Day is the right thing to do)

Nakuset hopes many will come out for the Montreal event, which starts at Jeanne-Mance Park and ends at Place du Canada (where the statue of first Canadian Prime Minister John A. Macdonald was decapitated not too long ago… the symbolism is not lost on me) with a short stop at the Raphaël André memorial. A rolling convoy from Kahnawake will also be joining. Several speakers and community activists are slated to speak, including Kevin Deer, a Longhouse faithkeeper from Kahnawake, who Nakuset says will be present to offer “healing and words of comfort to a community drowning in grief.” 

That grief Nakuset speaks of is something she is intimately acquainted with. The mother of three is a Sixties Scoop baby herself, born to a mother who was a survivor of a Saskatchewan residential school, and who, as a result of her trauma, was never able to truly mother her own six children. 

“My family fell apart because of residential schools,” she says. “My mother self-medicated and couldn’t take care of us. We were all taken away from her. All my siblings have an alcohol problem. I’m the only one who doesn’t drink. My sister committed suicide and one of my brothers froze to death while drinking. That’s what intergenerational trauma does.” 

Nakuset was later adopted by a Montreal family, but says she never quite felt like she fit in. Working with the Indigenous community and survivors at the Native Women’s Shelter and Resilience Montreal has given her purpose. 

“If you’re able to survive all this, it’s almost like you owe it to others, like it’s a responsibility to lift and inspire others,” she says. “People are depending on me.”

A chance at real reconciliation 

Justin Trudeau at the shrine outside the House of Commons (Cancelling Canada Day is the right thing to do)

As Canadians across the country are reassessing their connection to the church and their misplaced pride in a country that pretends to be far more benevolent and kind than it really is, questions are being raised about how to best use this collective reckoning to move forward together. 

Nakuset believes the time to act is now. “We need justice, we need the equivalent of the Nuremberg Trials. Those guilty should face accountability, these children had names, they had dreams.”

According to her, it’s important to have this event on July 1.

“Canada Day has never been a happy day for us,” she says. “It’s always felt like a slap in the face for Indigenous communities, but this year it feels even more important to remind Canadians that this is their legacy.” 

And those who insist it’s their right to celebrate Canada Day?

“They’re welcome to celebrate it,” Nakuset says, “but first I would advise them to read the Truth and Reconciliation Report and see what they’re celebrating. If you still feel like celebrating, go for it.” 

A path forward 

cancelling Canada Day
Kamloops memorial

Many appear to have already understood what needs to be done. Across the country, cities have cancelled Canada Day activities. The Canadian Museum of History has done the same. Many are treating this as a time of collective mourning and showing support by participating in that grief, not merely letting Indigenous communities carry the burden alone.

Hard as it might be for some to understand, participating in cross-country events to honour the memories of these Indigenous children whose graves were recently found, to gather as one to denounce genocide and demand justice, is also a way of celebrating Canada Day. 

Not the Canada we were told exists and never did. Not the whitewashed, innocent Canada we read about in history books. Not the Canada of partial truths and unspoken horrors. But the Canada we could aspire to, the Canada we want to live in, the Canada we could be proud of. Isn’t that, too, a way of honouring this place we call home? ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.