Indigenous people ask Canadians to 'put their pride aside' and reflect this Canada Day

Following investigations into unmarked grave sites at former residential schools, Indigenous people are asking Canadians to reflect on the full scope of the country's history rather than setting off fireworks.

Investigations into unmarked graves at former residential schools prompt call for reflection

Shoes line the edge of the Centennial Flame on Parliament Hill on May 30, 2021, in memory of the children whose remains were found at the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School at Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation in Kamloops, B.C. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

Many Indigenous people are calling for a day of mourning, reckoning and solidarity to take the place of the celebration that usually comes on July 1.

They say they're feeling grief following revelations from investigations into unmarked grave sites at former residential schools, which uncovered preliminary evidence of the remains of an estimated 215 children in B.C., and 751 people in Saskatchewan.

Governments have promised to help Indigenous groups search for more. The findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) suggest additional bodies will be found.

Justine Deschenes, who is Algonquin Anishinaabe, is planning to participate in a #CancelCanadaDay march that will span the Ottawa River.

She said the slogan doesn't detract from the message of unity and empowerment for Indigenous people in a time of mourning.

"I don't understand why #CancelCanadaDay is a bad thing. The whole country is built on genocide," she said. "I don't understand why that's celebrated every year."

March to the Hill

The march will go to Parliament Hill, which is on the unceded and unsurrendered traditional territory of the Algonquin Anishinaabe, as is the rest of the Ottawa Valley.

Gabrielle Fayant, a Métis woman and cofounder of a nonprofit organization called Assembly of Seven Generations, said she expects non-Indigenous Canadians to join the march.

"I hope Canadians can put their pride aside for one day," she said. "Solidarity with others means sometimes you have to sacrifice something, sacrifice a day. That's really not that much to ask for."

The Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que., has cancelled its Canada Day activities in recognition of the national tragedy of residential schools. Municipalities in New Brunswick, British Columbia and Saskatchewan have also opted for reflection over celebration.

The Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que., suspended its Canada Day celebrations in response to the 'national tragedy' of unmarked residential school burial sites found in B.C. and Saskatchewan. (Jonathan Dupaul/Radio-Canada)

A virtual Canada Day concert and fireworks display organized by the federal Canadian Heritage department are still scheduled to go ahead.

The Ottawa Aboriginal Coalition will host a sacred fire on the grounds of city hall on Monday morning to honour Indigenous children, which is supported by the City of Ottawa. While the city doesn't host Canada Day events of its own, its flags will continue to be at half-mast.

Fayant said she doesn't celebrate Canada Day. Last year, she went to Batoche, Sask., where her relatives were killed during the Métis resistance to the advance of the Canadian settlers.

A teepee stands on Parliament Hill during the Canada 150 celebrations in Ottawa in 2017. It was part of a protest calling attention to Canada's mistreatment of Indigenous people. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Justin Tang)

'A day of mourning'

The idea that Canada Day, and the Canadian state, are not causes for celebration isn't novel to Indigenous thinkers.

Lynn Gehl, an Algonquin Anishinaabe author and PhD in Indigenous studies, has called for cancelling Canada Day before. But she said the recent discoveries at former residential school sites have changed the conversation.

"It's really hit a peak where people are saying, 'let's have a day of mourning rather than celebrating this ridiculous ritual called Canada Day,'" she said.

Gehl is challenging people to learn about the genocide of the Algonquin Anishinaabe and ongoing policies that threaten them this July 1.

Grand Chief of the Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation John Boudrias said the discovery of the remains of children has motivated some overdue action on the TRC's 94 Calls to Action, but there's much more to be done.

He said putting aside celebrations is a choice some non-Indigenous Canadians have told him they are taking.

"It shows compassion. It shows comprehension toward our grieving," Boudrias said. "It's their choice. We live in a free country. I will be disappointed that people can actually celebrate during this time of mourning."

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.