Reconciling Canada Day

Many Canadians are hoping to have their cake and eat it too, in regards to celebrating the founding of Canada, and acknowledging the legacy of Indigenous genocide it was built on

Calls to cancel Canada Day this year are amplified in light of the 215 Indigenous children remains discovered at a former B.C. residential school. Both the cities of Victoria and Penticton B.C have cancelled their Canada Day celebrations as a result, but many more cities across the nation are moving forward. Locally, the Canada Day In Wilmot Committee, a group of volunteers separate from the township, cancelled its plans this year.

Wilmot Councillor Angie Hallman, Chair of this committee, says their decision to pause celebrations came after they spoke with local Indigenous community members.

“This year, the local indigenous community is asking for people to pause and reflect,” she said.

The Ontario government has committed $10 million towards identifying burial sites in our province. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) found that around 4,100 children had died while attending a residential school.

Cllr. Hallman told a metaphor that was shared with her by an Indigenous man. That of a snowball rolling down a hill. It represented the pain and trauma the Indigenous people carried with them since the start of Confederation.

“Please take the responsibility of taking a chunk of that snowball off as it continues  forward in the generations. So that way, for their children and their grandchildren, that snowball gets smaller and smaller, and that is the hope for Canada and Turtle Island in the future,” she said.

Local reaction

Land Back Camp began as a protest last year, calling out the lack of Indigenous spaces in Waterloo Region. It is now serving as a summer camp for Indigenous youth in the Laurel Creek Conservation Area. Amy Smoke and Shawn Johnston, two of the land defenders at camp, are still advising the region on various Indigenous issues. When news first broke about the Wilmot committee forgoing Canada Day celebrations, they were taken aback.

“Kind of surprising just given Wilmot’s recent history and white supremacy activity, but good for them,” Smoke said.

“I’m more curious to know if this is a one-time thing,” Johnston added. According to Cllr. Hallman, the committee isn’t sure what it will do next year, aside from their commitment to children and families, and that it will involve Indigenous input.

Meanwhile, in a statement, the City of Waterloo sees Canada Day as an occasion to recognize the Indigenous community in the name of truth and reconciliation. However, this year it will not be organizing any events due to the pandemic. Here’s the full statement from the city:

Canada is often rated one of the most loved countries in the world, for a variety of reasons that remain important and should be recognized.

This year, we should also commit to learning about the past, and what’s needed for reconciliation and healing.

Canada Day is an occasion to recognize that Indigenous peoples are the original peoples, and that today many cultures make up the fabric of the Canadian identity. This Canada Day, we should all set aside some time and learn about truth and reconciliation. We can also think about what we can do to truly reconcile the actions we have taken in the past, and identify and take meaningful actions that bring about true reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples and forge a better future together.

In recognition of COVID related restrictions, there will be no large community event organized by the city.

Instead, the City of Waterloo will be presenting a series of seven temporary public art installations in parks throughout the city.  The artworks explore the stories and histories of the various peoples/communities/nations who have called and continue to call this area home; our responsibility to each other and/or to the land; what it means to celebrate or not celebrate the past, present, and future of Canada; and, Waterloo as a community full of diverse identities, traditions, and celebrations. Details about each installation, including artist statements, will be available on the City’s Canada Day webpage beginning June 24, 2021.  The artworks will be installed by June 30 and will be on display until July 30, 2021.

Johnston said the City of Waterloo’s statement was what they are leery about, as it frames the decision in regards to COVID restrictions whilst tacking on a brief nod to the Indigenous community.

“Reconciliation becomes a fad. It’s just the cool thing right now and that also people are gonna forget about it next year,” they said. “Next year, people are gonna be back to their fireworks and their drinking and they’re going to forget that this ever happened.”

The City of Cambridge issued a similar statement to 570 NEWS.

This year, Canada Day, more than ever, should  be a time for reflection and remembrance. The City of Cambridge asks all who are celebrating Canada Day to please be respectful of Indigenous History Month (June) and consider learning more about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls to action.

In accordance with public health guidelines, there will be no large gatherings as part of Canada Day celebrations. In partnership with the volunteer Canada Day committee, small modified events have been planned keeping COVID-19 restrictions at the forefront. This includes a fishing photo contest and musical virtual bingo.

There are three Canadian art installations in Cambridge and the Old Post Office Canada Day projection montage is anticipated to start July 2. However, it will not go ahead until we have moved into Step 2 of the Province’s Roadmap to Reopen. The montage will include a moment of silence for the215 Indigenous children buried on the site of a former Kamloops Indian Residential School and ongoing discoveries across Canada.

Meanwhile, the City of Kitchener is planning a variety of COVID-19 safe activities, though it is dependent on provincial restrictions around that time. Kitchener Mayor Berry Vrbanovic said he reflected on the Wilmot committee’s message, but sees value in Canada Day.

“We all recognize that it’s been a difficult year. And many people are looking forward to Canada Day and using it as an opportunity to recognize all that we’ve been through, both as a community and as a country,” he said. However, Vrbanovic said people should be given the space to grieve in light of the residential school discoveries, and the fatal attack on a Muslim family in London.

He also said that for many people, “Canada Day is an opportunity to reflect on the things that are working well as a country, but also on the things that we have a lot more work to do on.”

Following the Wilmot committee’s announcement, Regional Councilor Michael Harris expressed his disappointment on the Mike Farwell Show on 570 NEWS. Harris had also represented Wilmot as an MPP in the past.

“Look, every Canada’s day, my family and I would start our Canada Day at the New Hamburg Arena for a strawberry breakfast,” he said. Harris suggested an educational element could be added to Canada Day on reconciliation, while celebrating what the country was, and the sacrifices made by generations of Canadians and veterans.

“We shouldn’t be looking for ways to further divide Canadians. We should be bringing them together,” he said.

Meanwhile, a 2015 Parliamentary Committee report found PTSD diagnoses nearly tripled amongst veterans. According to StatsCan, newer veterans were reporting more problems adjusting to post-military life, with about one in three veterans reporting difficulty with the transition. Last year, CBC News reported on a proposed class action lawsuit filed against Veteran Affairs Canada for failing to communicate to veterans about their federal benefits eligibility.

How the Indigenous spend July 1st

For many Indigenous people across the country, Canada Day is more a celebration of genocide than anything else. The Canadian Press reported that following Victoria B.C. decision to cancel its celebrations, the Federation of Indigenous Sovereign Nations – which represents 74 First Nations in Saskatchewan – expressed their support for canceling Canada Day. A number of planned Cancel Canada Day events have cropped up across the country in the lead up to July 1st.

For the co-founders of Land Back Camp, the decision is an easy one. They didn’t celebrate it before, they aren’t going to start now, especially in light of recent events.

“I just don’t understand how any Canadian who’s even remotely aware of what’s going on in the country right now could possibly celebrate the continued ongoing genocide,” Smoke said. “Residential schools just translated into the child welfare system, and prison system, and they’re blindly celebrating the birth of their nation on our lands.”

Recently, Global News reported the discovery of another 104 potential graves found at a former residential school in Brandon, Manitoba. CBC News reported more graves were found in Saskatchewan. Native Americans in the United States are also experiencing their own trauma. Residential schools were based on the US Industrial School system. In Pennsylvania, around 180 Native American children were buried in the Carlisle Barracks graveyard. They had all died while attending the former Carlisle residential school years ago. PennLive reported that the Army was beginning the process of returning the remains of 10 Native American children to their families.

Meanwhile there’s been renewed calls to look into foster care, which Nunavut MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq called the “new residential school system,” which echoes the earlier findings of the TRC. And despite making up five per cent of Canada’s population, Indigenous people make up over 30 per cent of the prison population. An increase from previous years.

The Canadian Government has also been fighting the survivors of the St. Anne Residential School in court. It’s also arguing the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal rulings around compensation to Indigenous children in foster care and the expansion of Jordan’s Principle to children who live off reserves. A motion was passed in the Commons, calling on the government to back down.

The idea that a compromise on celebrating Canada Day could be reached in light of all this, is a tough bitter jagged pill for those who never saw themselves in Canada. How one could acknowledge the horrible state of Indigenous relations and then finish the day off with beers, barbecues and fireworks, seems no more than a token nod.

“So many non-Indigenous people walk freely without the consequences of colonization.”

– Madison Green

For Smoke, they said “there’s no compromise in our deaths.” In prior years, many like Smoke commemorated July 1st by grieving with family.

“We were here and they knew it. They forced us into residential schools, we died and they knew it,” they said. “It’s trying to make excuses now for the unbelievable atrocities that they have perpetuated against the people that were here. It’s not a good day. It’s never a good day in my family to celebrate the birth of a nation that destroyed us.”

Olivia Maine is one of the campers at Land Back Camp reconnecting with their Indigenous roots. It’s been a long time since they last celebrated Canada Day in any way.

“I don’t think there’s any way to have it both ways, or at least not at the moment,” they said. Maine was adopted as a baby. Her Indigenous ancestry was never hidden from them, but their family’s religion took precedence. Leaving the Jehovah’s Witnesses allowed Maine the chance to learn more about her heritage.

“It just became more of this really sad day of mourning because I was mourning my loss of my language, and loss of culture, and loss of family, and loss of tradition. It wasn’t that much of a celebration to me. The free fireworks just kind of lost their sparkle,” they said. For Maine and many like them, Canada has a long path towards decolonizing their system and institutions, and holding people accountable. Things that should take precedence over conversations around compromising on Canada Day festivities.

Erin is one of the newer campers at Land Back Camp. In previous years, they spent Canada Day like many other Canadians: fireworks and parades.

“It’s only been within the last couple years that I’ve been getting more in touch with my background and learning more about Canada’s role in the treatment of Indigenous peoples here,” they said. Erin has family who attended the residential schools years ago and it left its mark on their family. Their grandmother was the only one who really practiced Indigenous traditions, but sadly passed away. This July 1st, Erin plans on spending it at Land Back Camp.

Another Indigenous youth, Madison Green, has no interest in celebrating confederation. Every July 1st is spent celebrating their mother’s birthday anyways.

“These last few years, I’ve taken upon myself  to learn more about what Canada really is, and I’ve come to the conclusion that Canada is literally nothing without the theft of Indigenous identity, and death of Indigenous culture, Indigenous children, like everything,” they said. Canada Day was more a reminder of generational trauma in the Indigenous community.

“So many non-Indigenous people walk freely without the consequences of colonization, like the heaviness of it,” Green said.

In a virtual town hall, Kitchener-Conestoga MP Tim Louis spoke with members of the local Indigenous community to commemorate Indigenous Heritage Month and National Indigenous Peoples Day. One of the speakers was Indigenous Elder Nina De Shane who works with the Wilmot Family Resource Centre. While she said it wasn’t her place to tell people what to or not to do on July 1st, she did share her feelings at the moment.

“I think that if any other group of people had borne the loss of so many children. I just can’t imagine how you think they would go on. And that’s how we feel. Right now, we feel like we cannot go on, like it’s that painful for us,” she said.

If you are experiencing pain or distress resulting from residential schools, or are in need of support, you can call: 

Indian Residential School Survivors and Family Hotline: 1-866-925-4419 

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

Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868 

First Nations and Inuit Hope for Wellness Help Line: 1-855-242-3310

Native Youth Crisis Hotline: 1-877-209-1266

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