New approach to Canada Day at The Forks provides space for celebration, reflection: attendees

People who attended a new kind of Canada Day celebration at The Forks in Winnipeg on Friday say the event gave them a chance to celebrate their country while reflecting on its past.

Winnipeg national historic site reshaped its annual July 1 event this year after consultations with community

Three people stand behind a bowl with a fire burning inside it.
Charles Woolford, at centre between Riley Guiboche and Vijay Nair, said he was honoured to be among the fire keepers tending to the fire at The Forks on Friday. (Travis Golby/CBC)

People who attended a new kind of Canada Day celebration at The Forks in Winnipeg on Friday say the event gave them a chance to celebrate their country while reflecting on its past.

Mike Edwards came to the event with his family, all clad in orange shirts — the colour associated with honouring survivors and the families of Indigenous people forced to attend residential schools.

He said he liked the new direction the national historic site took to include more elements of Indigenous culture in its July 1 celebrations this year.

"While Canada is the place where I live, I think there are things that need to be recognized about the history of Canada. And I think that it's important to recognize the history of Canada's relationship with Indigenous people," he said. 

Edwards, who is not Indigenous, said he thinks there's a way to balance Canada Day celebrations with reflections about the country's history.

"But I think that after so many years of celebrating traditional Canada Day … it's important to tip the scale the other way," he said.

The national historic site — where the Red and Assiniboine rivers meet, and which has been an important gathering spot for thousands of years — announced two weeks ago that after months of Indigenous-led discussions with community members, newcomers and youth, it decided to reshape what its usual July 1 events would look like.

The discussions followed last year's discoveries of what are believed to be hundreds of unmarked graves at residential school sites across the country. 

Those findings led many to opt out of celebrating Canada Day in 2021 and instead spend the day honouring the thousands of children forced to attend the institutions.

Clare MacKay, executive director of The Forks, said the site wanted to offer people a variety of experiences this year, ranging from quiet spots for contemplation to places for gatherings and celebrations, as it looked to reimagine its July 1 events.

A woman smiles slightly as people gather in a space behind her.
Clare MacKay, the executive director of The Forks, says the site will offer its annual feedback survey at the end of the month, and will specifically ask people what they thought of the reimagined Canada Day celebrations. (Travis Golby/CBC)

"Canada Day is Canada Day. And we wanted to ensure that we could indicate that we were doing things differently, that we had consulted with our communities, with Indigenous people in particular, newcomers and youth," MacKay said.

"That really is our intention for this entire day, is to bring everybody from our city here to learn from each other, to gather together, to move forward together."

Newcomer excited to mark 1st Canada Day

MacKay said she hopes The Forks can build on this year's work to create an even stronger program for July 1 next year. 

That may include fireworks, which were scrapped this year largely because of timing issues: programming ends at 6 p.m. and a fireworks show wouldn't happen until 11 p.m.

But the site will also consider environmental and other impacts of the loud displays before offering fireworks again, she said.

The Forks will offer its annual feedback survey for the community at the end of the month. This year, it will specifically ask people what they thought of the reimagined Canada Day celebrations.

Those at the event Friday also included Camilo Nirvaz, who came to Canada from Colombia with his wife and dog two months ago.

Nirvaz said he was excited to mark his first Canada Day by celebrating his new country, and learning about its past and about Indigenous cultures.

"I will learn about the many traditions of Canada. History is so important, because when you introduce the history, customs, you will learn about the Canadian steps," he said.

Two people sit in the grass looking on at a larger group of people sitting in a circle.
Friday's event at The Forks had spaces for both quiet reflection and celebrations. (Sam Samson/CBC)

The day's activities included lessons on how to create and offer tobacco ties into a fire, which Nathan Ertel and Shawn Thomas, from the St. Boniface Street Links outreach program, helped with.

Thomas, who is from Peguis First Nation, said he's been learning more recently about Canada's residential school system and hopes others spend some time this July 1 doing the same.

"It's important now that people understand what's going on," he said.

Ertel, who is not Indigenous, said he hopes people put some thought into the different options they have to observe Canada Day.

"You can either celebrate it or you can remember [parts of Canada's history], or you could do both," he said. "It's up to you to decide."

Charles Woolford, who is from Wuskwi Sipihk First Nation, was among the fire keepers tending to the fire at The Forks on Friday.

Woolford, 25, said it was an honour to do that work, especially when it means sharing traditions with the younger generation or with people who have lost touch with their culture.

"It's important for First Nations to learn our traditions and ceremonies again," he said.

"We've got to think about our young ones, because they don't know how to do that stuff."

'It isn't political,' says Assiniboia Downs attendee

Karen Suderman said she would normally attend Canada Day festivities at The Forks, but instead attended celebrations at Assiniboia Downs on Friday.

Suderman, who is Métis, doesn't agree with the reimagining of Canada Day events at The Forks.

"To each their own," she said. "It's kind of sad that you are making it political, because it isn't political. It's Canada Day."

Karen Suderman said she would normally go to Canada Day events at The Forks, but chose to celebrate at Assiniboia Downs this year instead. (Travis Golby/CBC)

Michelle Huot, who was also at Assiniboia Downs Friday, said she was conflicted about how to celebrate Canada's birthday with her young family.

"I want to celebrate … but we have such a complicated history," she said,  adding she's trying to balance celebration with reflection.

"I think you can do both."

With files from Sam Samson and Stephanie Cram