Canada Day event at The Forks to shine light on 'hard truths,' honour children in unmarked graves

Canada Day at The Forks in Winnipeg will be a more muted event this year, designed around remembrance and silence "to honour the children lost and now found."

'It was important to us that we not just carry on as if nothing had changed,' says Forks VP

Canada Day at The Forks will be virtual and more sombre this year. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Canada Day at The Forks in Winnipeg will be a more muted event this year, designed around remembrance and silence "to honour the children lost and now found."

The July 1 celebration at the popular gathering spot at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers is typically one of the biggest in the province. The COVID-19 pandemic and public health restrictions meant it would be scaled back — a virtual event, as it was last year — but the discovery of unmarked graves at residential school sites has given it a new focus.

"Our roots are Indigenous, so it was important to us that we not just carry on as if nothing had changed," said Clare MacKay, the vice-president of strategic initiatives at The Forks, which has as a gathering place for thousands of years.

"Pretty much as soon as we started seeing the discoveries in Kamloops and we started seeing calls to cancel Canada Day, we started thinking about what our responsibility was, especially as our site has such a rich history."

In May, Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in B.C. reported unmarked burials near the Kamloops Indian Residential School. Preliminary findings suggest the site contains the remains of about 215 children.

And last week, Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan announced preliminary findings of an estimated 751 unmarked graves in the community, about 140 kilometres east of Regina. The unmarked graves are at a cemetery near the former Marieval Indian Residential School.

Investigations are now underway at similar sites in Manitoba.

Churchill, Thompson, Shamattawa cancel events

After consulting with Indigenous curator Niigaan Sinclair, The Forks created an online event for Canada Day that will begin with Sinclair offering his thoughts on the meaning and gravity of Canada Day this year.

That will be followed by a blessing and moment of silence to honour the children lost and now found, The Forks social media posts say.

It is important to talk about the recent events in Canada that continue to bring to light the violence perpetrated against Indigenous communities, the posts say.

"These stories are hard to hear and talk about — especially for Indigenous people, who experienced it first-hand — but it's important for Canadians to know that this has been their experience of this country."

The event, which begins at 1 p.m. and can be viewed on The Forks' Facebook or YouTube page, will also feature words from elders Barbara and Clarence Nepinak and then performances from Manitoba artists, including First Nations jiggers.

"What we have done is, we hope, talk about some of those hard truths and find a way to start having those conversations," MacKay said.

"What our Canada Day might look like going forward? We'll be having those conversations as we carry on."

The Manitoba communities of Churchill and Thompson and Shamattawa First Nation have cancelled their Canada Day events. Shamattawa pulled down the Canadian flag.

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman, in an email to CBC News, said although the city issues permits for special events like Canada Day, it does not typically organize them and has no events of its own to cancel.

However, Bowman is asking people to consider becoming partners to Winnipeg's Indigenous Accord.

Inspired by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's 94 calls to action, the accord compels signatories to publish an annual report that quantifies the measures they're taking to further the cause of reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada.

"Canada Day is a time to come together to celebrate our common bond as Canadians and to reflect upon the actions necessary for our country to live up to the ideals we hold dear," Bowman's emailed statement says, adding that Canada Day events "should continue to evolve to better reflect our community's values of inclusion."

Every Child Matters Walk

A Winnipeg woman is also organizing a walk as a tribute to those whose unmarked graves have been discovered, and to the survivors of residential schools.

Precious Young-Whiteway, 23, organized Thursday's Every Child Matters Walk, which will start at Portage Avenue and Main Street at 1 p.m.

"There we will pray, sing and have a moment of silence for the children found as well as the countless others we still need to bring home before we start our walk," the event's Facebook page states. The walk will head down Main Street and Broadway to the grounds of the legislative building, where elders will tell stories and educate people further abut the residential schools and day schools.

Precious Young-Whiteway's mom and grandma were forced to go to a residential school and two of her own siblings went to a federally run day school. Young-Whiteway also lived in Kamloops for five years and knows many of the First Nations families there.

"My mom could have been one of those kids that didn't make it and we wouldn't have been here," she said.

Precious Young-Whiteway has organized the Every Child Matters Walk for Canada Day. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Like residential schools, day schools aimed to assimilate Indigenous children while eradicating Indigenous languages and cultures, and often had religious affiliations with the Roman Catholic, United, Anglican, and other churches.

Starting in the early 1860s, 700 Indian day schools operated across Canada. That's five times more than the number of residential schools that operated across the country.

"Don't celebrate the country that tried to get rid of us on July 1," reads the Facebook event for the Every Child Matters Walk."Come out to walk and pray with our people instead."

Young-Whiteway initially suggested the idea of a walk on social media, intended for her friends. But others saw it as well, "and then it kind of blew up," says Young-Whiteway. She made it an official event, and says she's secured sponsors so that snacks and drinks can be provided.

As of Tuesday afternoon, more than 600 people had indicated on social media they intended to attend.

Some groups calling for cancellation of Canada Day

1 year ago
Duration 2:14
Canada Day at The Forks in Winnipeg will be a more muted event this year, designed around remembrance and silence "to honour the children lost and now found."


Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories. He is the author of award-nominated and bestselling The Lesser Known: A History of Oddities from the Heart of the Continent.

With files from Austin Grabish and Meaghan Ketcheson