Is Canada Day set for another brawl over cancel culture?

Given the atrocities this country has been forced to confront over the past month, Canada Day — normally a moment for celebration — was always going to be difficult to frame this year. But Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole is angling for a political fight over the national holiday.

Canadians may wonder whether now is the time for federal leaders to score patriotism points off each other

A young new Canadian holds a flag as she takes part in a citizenship ceremony on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.
A young new Canadian holds a flag as she takes part in a citizenship ceremony on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on April 17, 2019. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Given the atrocities this country has been forced to confront over the past month, Canada Day — normally a moment for celebration — was always going to be difficult to frame this year.

But in recent comments, Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole seems to be angling for a political fight over the national holiday. 

"As someone who served Canada and will soon ask for the trust to lead this country, I can't stay silent when people want to cancel Canada Day," O'Toole said in a televised address to Conservative MPs last week. "I'm very proud to be Canadian. And I know most people are as well."

Canada Day has not been cancelled, nor has there been any serious public discussion about doing so. While the hashtag #CancelCanadaDay has trended a few times on Twitter, the national holiday does not seem to be in imminent danger of being called off.

What has happened is that several municipalities have opted to drop their usual celebrations.

After the reported discovery of the remains of 215 children on the grounds of a former residential school in British Columbia, two municipalities in that province cancelled their official festivities. In the wake of last week's preliminary finding of 751 grave sites in Saskatchewan, several communities in that province have done likewise.

Most Canadians probably understand that this Canada Day requires something more nuanced than in years past.

But O'Toole seems to want to speak to an audience uncomfortable with the current discourse about Canada's failings — and to use the occasion to assert his own patriotism and question the patriotism of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

WATCH: Erin O'Toole says he's troubled by calls to cancel Canada Day events

Conservative Party leader says he's troubled by calls to cancel Canada Day celebrations.

2 years ago
Duration 0:57
Erin O'Toole, leader of the Official Opposition, says he's troubled by calls to cancel Canada Day celebrations. He says the voices of the few threaten to tear the country apart rather than bring it together.

In his remarks last Wednesday, O'Toole said the discovery in Kamloops was a "necessary awakening" for the country that "brutally forced us to confront our past … and to recommit ourselves to reconciliation."

O'Toole said that Canadians should acknowledge "where we fall short" and "not forget or cover it up." He also said we should "channel the pain of Canada falling short to build up the country and not tear it down."

The phrase "falling short" may not do justice to the incredible tragedies confronting us right now. And the choice between "tearing down" and "building up" may be a false one. Sometimes things — buildings, laws, systems, ideas — have to be torn down so that something better can be built in their place.

Cue the culture war

It's possible the people with negative feelings about this country agree with those who have more positive feelings when it comes to what Canada should be: equitable, inclusive, just, generous. They might simply disagree on how much Canada deserves to believe it has lived up to those ideals.

But in setting himself in opposition to those who would "cancel" Canada Day, O'Toole is calling back to the culture warrior he presented to Conservatives when he ran for the party leadership in 2019. Back then, he was very concerned about "cancel culture" and the "radical left" and very opposed to anyone who would tear down a statue of John A. Macdonald.

But cries of "cancel culture" tend to obscure real questions about individual actions and accountability. Reducing this moment to a culture war over Canada Day would evade legitimate questions regarding how Canadians should feel about their country, and how governments should reflect and frame those feelings.

Patriot games

"There is a difference between acknowledging where we've fallen short, there is a difference between legitimate criticism and always tearing down the country," O'Toole said Wednesday. "Always being on the side of those who run Canada down. Always seeing the bad and never the good."

So who is lining up with those who always "run Canada down"? On Wednesday, O'Toole didn't say. But in an interview with Global's The West Block on Sunday, the Conservative leader claimed that Trudeau and some cabinet ministers "almost want to cancel Canada Day because we failed in the past." He also suggested he might be the only national leader who is "proud of our country and wants it to do better."

Questioning another leader's pride in the country is an astonishing attack — just as it was when Paul Martin's Liberals questioned Stephen Harper's patriotism in 2006 (Conservatives might remember how well that worked out for Martin).

But O'Toole is also not the first Conservative leader in the last six years to lament that the popular view of Canada's history is getting too negative. Four years ago, Andrew Scheer gave a speech in which he challenged "those who deny we have anything to be proud of as a country."

It's fair to say that Justin Trudeau has put an emphasis on facing up to Canada's sins and apologizing for the federal government's past misdeeds. The skeptic's view is that offering apologies and official recognition for past wrongs is too easy. But ideally, facing the past would build resolve to do the hard work of making things better in the present and future.

People embrace in front of the Centennial Flame on Parliament Hill June 4, 2021 at a memorial for the 215 children whose remains reportedly were found on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Every moment spent dwelling on unmarked graves, for instance, should increase the moral and political pressure to advance reconciliation. The greatest risk is that Canadians choose to look away, or move on too quickly.

If anyone feels threatened or offended by the attention given to the worst aspects of this country's past, it's worth asking why — whether that discomfort is really necessary.

It's also fair to ask how much difference there is between what O'Toole claims to believe and what he claims to be against.

Four years ago, the prime minister delivered an address to the United Nations general assembly that dwelled at length on reconciliation and the mistreatment of Indigenous peoples in Canada. But he also spoke about his government's efforts to fix that relationship and held out Canada's efforts as an example to other countries.

Flags mark where ground-penetrating radar recorded what are believed to be 751 unmarked graves in this cemetery near the grounds of the former Marieval Indian Residential School on the Cowessess First Nation, Sask., on Saturday, June 26, 2021. (Mark Taylor/The Canadian Press)

Trudeau struck a similar tone in his Canada Day remarks that year. Reconciliation, he said, "is a choice we make, not because of what we did, or were, but because of who we are."

Four years later, the prime minister hasn't cancelled any official Canada Day proceedings (though the performances will again be virtual). Neither has he voiced support for tearing down statues.

Trudeau still faces a significant challenge in calibrating his own remarks on Thursday. And what he says will move to the centre of a conversation about how Canadians should feel about their country.

In the meantime, O'Toole seems to be trying to score points in a poorly conceived dispute.

Some people would, no doubt, like to get through Canada Day without having to think too much about negative things. Other people — especially now — will find it hard to get through Canada Day without feeling pain or sorrow ... or guilt.

But it's hard to see how anyone would be left better off by a fight over who loves Canada best.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.