British Columbia

Victoria cancels scheduled Canada Day programming in wake of Kamloops residential school discovery

B.C.'s capital city has cancelled scheduled programming for Canada Day following the discovery of what are believed to be the unmarked burial sites of children's remains near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. 

Council voted unanimously to cancel planned programming in favour of a broadcast later in the summer

Victoria City Hall, with two bicycles outside it.
Victoria city council voted unanimously to cancel the scheduled Canada Day broadcast this year. (Michael McArthur/CBC)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

Victoria city council has decided to cancel its scheduled Canada Day programming this year following the discovery of what are believed to be the unmarked burial sites of children's remains near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. 

Originally, the city had planned virtual programming to mark the day due to COVID-19 pandemic gathering restrictions. Instead, the city said it will produce something for broadcast later this summer featuring local artists, and guided by local First Nations.

"As First Nations mourn and in light of the challenging moment we are in as a Canadian nation following the discovery of the remains of 215 children at a former residential school, council has decided to take the time to explore new possibilities, instead of the previously planned virtual Canada Day broadcast," Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps said in a media statement.

In an interview on CBC's On the Island Thursday morning prior to council's decision to cancel scheduled programming, Helps said that last Friday she spoke with local Indigenous individuals who generally participate in Canada Day celebrations, but who said they didn't feel they could do so this year. 

"They didn't feel comfortable participating this year because basically they're grief-struck and reeling, as are many Indigenous people across the country," Helps said Thursday morning. 

Reflecting needs of First Nations communities

She acknowledged the lək̓ʷəŋən people, on whose territory the city of Victoria was built, and the importance of ensuring the city's plans for July 1 reflected the needs of that community. 

Helps said residents can still acknowledge the day in their own way, but the city wants to provide an opportunity for thoughtful reflection and examination of what it truly means to be Canadian. 

"There will be a broadcast, it just wont be on July first," said Helps on B.C. Today Friday morning after the motion "regarding a rethink of the City of Victoria's traditional Canada Day celebration" had passed.

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps told CBC Radio Friday that the city is not cancelling the celebrations forever, but that it will instead work with local First Nations to produce a special television broadcast that will reflect on what it means to be Canadian. That production will be available this summer sometime after July 1, she said. (CHEK News)

Following council's vote, reactions poured in on social media, with the hashtag #CancelCanadaDay being used to both attack and support the decision.

"This cancel culture drives me nuts and I resist that," said the mayor. "Nowhere in the motion is it cancelling the broadcast, it's re-purposing."

Helps said the plan was to produce a new broadcast by Canada Day — one that "grapples with what it means to be Canadian" — but the turnaround time was too tight.

"We just need a bit more time to work with the nations," she said.

An opportunity for change

John Jack, chair of the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District and a member of Huu-ay-aht First Nations, said the move by council is a respectful act indicative of the true spirit of reconciliation.

"Reconciliation itself is a collective pursuit — the pursuit of and act of forgiveness on a grand scale — and it's that process that matters and I see that reflected in the decision," Jack told On The Island Friday.

He said pausing this year's celebrations provides an opportunity to consider how Canada Day could look in the future, saying he does not favour cancelling it forever, but instead hopes municipalities can find inclusive ways to mark the occasion.

In past years, people in Victoria have formed a 'living Canadian flag' on the lawn of the B.C. parliament buildings to celebrate Canada Day on July 1. (Victoria Canada Day/Twitter)

"I don't necessarily hear people having a problem with Canada or Canadians, although the celebration of Canada Day can take on a more unique, or more specific and responsive, theme or attitude," said Jack.

He said he respects the fact that some citizens of his community will never give Canada a chance because of the country's past treatment of Indigenous people. But he said Canada isn't just its past. "Canada is its future as well, and that's something where First Nations have a place."

Cancelling Canada Day permanently would cancel an opportunity for change, Jack said. 

"We can use Canada Day as a day to come together, talk and help the whole country become what it should have been."

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

With files from On the Island, B.C. Today and Bridgette Watson