These GTA municipalities altered Canada Day plans to honour residential school victims

Some GTA cities are altering their Canada Day plans in light of the ongoing discoveries of unmarked graves at residential schools across the country.

'We're all tied to those families of the residential school system,' says participant at Toronto event

Amy Myran, left, and Robin Rice attend a rally in Toronto on Thursday, mourning the loss of residential school victims. (Evan Tsuyoshi Mitsui/CBC)

WARNING: This story contains details and imagery some readers may find distressing.

As Indigenous leaders call for Canada Day to be declared a national day of mourning, some GTA municipalities say they are reframing the day as an opportunity to learn and reflect on the dark legacy of the residential school system.

Officials in Toronto, Durham and Peel regions say they altered their plans to commemorate residential school victims through various means, including illuminating municipal buildings in orange, holding a moment of silence and lowering flags to half-mast.

In Toronto, hundreds participated in a walk on Thursday organized by the Toronto Council Fire Native Cultural Centre in honour of the victims of residential schools. 

Aiyana Myran was one of the younger attendees of a walk organized on Canada Day by the Toronto Council Fire Native Cultural Centre to 'honour and support' former students of residential schools. (Paul Smith/CBC)

"As a survivor, I went through their system," said Johnny John-George at the event. 

"I think it's important that we bring up everything that's happened because Canada wasn't made honestly." 

Participants met at Dundas and Parliament streets around 10 a.m. Thursday, making their way to Yonge and Dundas for a round dance and eventually landing at Nathan Phillips Square for speeches and round dancing. 

Hundreds of protesters gathered in Toronto on Canada Day, making their way to Nathan Phillips square for a rally in honour of residential school victims. (Evan Tsuyoshi Mitsui/CBC)

Luanne White-Crow, who is from the Treaty 3 area in northwestern Ontario, said it was important to "honour and provide support" to the victims and survivors on Canada Day. 

"We're all tied to those families of the residential school system," she told CBC Toronto. 

"We're here to pray for all those loved ones who have passed ... we have to take the time, we have to take action and we have to really create space for grieving." 

Change follows discovery of unmarked graves 

Toronto Mayor John Tory attended the walk and also announced that both the CN Tower and the Toronto sign will be lit up in orange in solidarity with Indigenous communities.

"We're here as family," Tory said at Thursday's event. 

"We're blessed with the ingenuity and with the compassion and with the values and with the resources to be able to do more. The questions is whether we choose to take advantage of that." 

The push to make Canada Day a time of mourning began after 215 unmarked graves were found in Kamloops, B.C., in late May. Weeks later, another 751 graves were found in Saskatchewan. It was also announced Wednesday that another 182 unmarked graves had been discovered at a residential school in Cranbrooke, B.C.

During a call Wednesday with CBC's Metro Morning, Ontario Regional Chief Glen Hare called for Canadians to show "unity" and "respect" by mourning with Indigenous communities on July 1.

And he said the day should officially be named a national day of mourning by the government.

"The Indigenous people are mourning and we are asking the people to mourn with us — we hope that they will," he said.

Round dances took place at both Yonge-Dundas Square and Nathan Phillips Square on Thursday at an event honouring residential school victims and survivors. (Evan Tsuyoshi Mitsui/CBC)

Hare said he wants communities to work on reconciliation together over the next 12 months and that the country can resume celebrations in July 2022.

"Let's honour what happened to residential school students and we will all get along just fine as we move forward together," he said.

Canada Day should be time of reflection, learning, GTA mayors say

Many Indigenous leaders and communities have encouraged Canadians to wear orange on Canada Day as a way to honour and acknowledge the victims of the residential school system.

Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie announced  via Twitter that city council approved a motion Wednesday to change the city's Canada Day virtual event to "a time of reflection." 

In Vaughan, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama'at is observing Canada day as a day of "solidarity, reflection and learning."

The grounds of the Baitul Islam mosque in Vaughan, which usually hosts tens of thousands of attendees for Canada day, instead planted 1,000 flags into the ground — symbolic markings for each of the Indigenous children lost. 

The Baitul Islam Mosque in Vaughan planted 1,000 flags in honour of the unmarked graves of children recently discovered on the ground of residential schools across Canada. (Submitted by Safwan Choudhry)

Brampton is also hosting a virtual event with performances by Indigenous artists, such as Twin Flames, Tom Wilson and iskwē, according to the city's website.

Back in Toronto, the East York Canada Day Committee has released a statement saying it has replaced its planned celebrations with a call for residents to spend the day in "personal examination of what it means to be Canadian."

"We urge all East Yorkers to spend Canada Day learning more about the history of colonization and the lasting effects it has had on the original peoples of this country," the statement said.

'Education, reconciliation'

Pickering Mayor Dave Ryan said in an interview with CBC News that his city has changed the name of its Canada Day event to "Contemplate Canada" and that the events will focus on "education, reconciliation and reflection."

"There's no right way to do this. Everyone should make an effort that they feel comfortable with, to acknowledge this very dark page in our history," he said.

Ryan said Pickering city hall will be lit in orange, flags will be lowered to half-mast and the city is encouraging residents to take part in a porch light memorial to honour the memory of residential school victims.

As for future Canada Day celebrations, he said he thinks they will be permanently changed.

"I think that some form of acknowledgement of our total history will become a part of all our celebrations moving forward." 

Support is available for anyone affected by the lingering effects of residential school and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

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

With files from Julia Knope, Stella Dupuy and Ali Chiasson