British Columbia

Criticism of Canada Day celebrations grows in the wake of burial sites being found at old residential schools

In the wake of hundreds of unmarked graves being discovered at residential schools in B.C. and Saskatchewan, a movement to “cancel Canada Day” is growing.

First Nations and municipalities in B.C. are choosing not to celebrate

A young girl waves a Canadian flag while being carried on shoulders through a crowd of people.
A young girl waves a Canadian flag while being carried through the crowd during Canada Day celebrations in Vancouver, B.C., on Saturday, July 1, 2017. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Canada Day is usually a day of celebration. Flags are flown, fireworks launched and the anthem sung.

But in the wake of hundreds of unmarked graves being discovered at residential schools in B.C. and Saskatchewan, a movement to "cancel Canada Day" is growing.

Several First Nations and municipalities in B.C. are opting not to mark the occasion at all.

The Gitwangak First Nation and Nak'azdli Whu'ten First Nation in the northern part of the province are among the band offices that have decided to boycott the July 1 celebrations.

Gitwangak Chief Sandra Larin says there's been a shift in tone this year.

"I think we just have an awareness that Canada Day is because of Confederation and the bringing together of the colonies and colonization," she told Daybreak North host Carolina de Ryk. 

Sandra Larin is the chief councillor of the Gitwangak First Nation in northwestern British Columbia. (Rosalee Morgan)

"We decided that it's just not appropriate with what we're seeing in the uncovering of all of these residential school mass graves or unmarked graves for our people."

Instead, the band is asking people to wear orange shirts and reflect on the treatment of Indigenous people by Canada.

Both Victoria and Penticton cancelled their celebrations out of respect for Indigenous peoples following the discovery of what are believed to be the unmarked gravesites of children's remains near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. 

The latest discovery of unmarked graves was announced Wednesday by the community of ʔaq'am, one of four bands in the Ktunaxa Nation located near the city of Cranbrook, B.C.

Those discoveries have made Chief Leah Wilson of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation question whether there is anything to celebrate.

"We found children's remains at schools. Schools should have playgrounds, not unmarked graves, never mind cemeteries," she told Early Edition host Stephen Quinn.

Chief Leah George-Wilson of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation holds a newws conference with four B.C. Indigenous groups challenging the reapproval of the Trans Mountain pipeline in Vancouver on Dec. 16, 2019. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Alternatives to cancelling Canada Day

While some have chosen an outright boycott of Canada Day celebrations, others are organizing alternative celebrations like an "Indigenous Day" planned by the Gingolx Village.

Skeena MLA Ellis Ross believes it's possible to recognize Canada Day while remembering the colonial harms inflicted upon Indigenous Peoples when the country was founded.

"Everybody is struggling with this topic," said the former chief councillor of the Haisla Nation. "And especially what I find interesting and actually gratifying is that [non-Aboriginal] Canadians are struggling with this topic."

Others, like Ginger Gosnell-Myers, are more cautiously optimistic that the recent outrage over residential school discoveries shown by non-Indigenous Canadians signifies real change.

The former Indigenous relations manager of the City of Vancouver says Canadians have had many opportunities to learn about the country's violent colonial past.

"I'm shocked today at what it has taken to lift the veil from Canadians' eyes as to the atrocities that many of our elders and survivors from residential schools have been talking about for decades now," said the member of the Nisga'a and Kwakwak'awakw Nations.