Trudeau, political leaders ask Canadians to delicately balance celebration and reflection on Canada Day

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is asking that people celebrating Canada Day also make time to reflect on the nation’s historical failures and commit to building a more fair and equitable society.

Holiday arrives just weeks after the discoveries of unmarked graves and remains at 3 residential schools

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau used the bulk of his Canada Day statement asking Canadians to reflect on historical injustices and commit to building a better country. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is asking that people celebrating Canada Day also make time to reflect on the nation's historical failures and commit to building a more fair and equitable society.

"Today, we celebrate our country and everyone who calls it home," said Trudeau in a media statement.

"But while we acknowledge our successes, we must also recognize that, for some, Canada Day is not yet a day of celebration."

The prime minister's unusually sombre Canada Day message comes in the wake of discoveries of children's remains and unmarked graves at the sites of former residential schools in British Columbia and Saskatchewan.

Trudeau said the revelations "have rightfully pressed us to reflect on our country's historical failures, and the injustices that still exist for Indigenous peoples and many others in Canada."

WATCH: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, speak to the CBC's Ian Hanomansing about how they are marking Canada Day:

'We have to respect and have room for this reflection': Trudeau

4 months ago
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, shared their thoughts on celebrating Canada Day this year, and how they've spoken to their children about Indigenous issues. 2:54

News of the discoveries at the former residential schools have prompted a national reckoning about Canada's historical mistreatment of Indigenous people and shone a light on inequities still experienced by those communities.

Those conversations have cast a long shadow over a holiday that has typically been celebrated by political leaders as a joyous occasion.

Trudeau's official July 1 itinerary does not include any traditional Canada Day celebrations, which have in any case largely been put on hold due to ongoing COVID-19 restrictions.

The prime minister instead has plans to speak with Phyllis Webstad, the executive director of the Orange Shirt Society, a non-profit organization that supports residential school reconciliation.

AFN national chief thanks Canadians working toward reconciliation

Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, asked non-Indigenous Canadians to spend time today learning about the country's shared history with First Nations.

"On this Canada Day, I lift up the many concerned Canadians reaching out to First Nations and joining the effort toward reconciliation," he said.

Bellegarde said true reconciliation will require Canada to confront a number of ongoing injustices, such as gender-based violence, systemic racism in Canadian institutions, a lack of clean drinking water and mouldy homes in remote communities.

He also called for justice for survivors of residential schools.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh is also foregoing any celebratory Canada Day events. He plans to meet with Indigenous leaders and host a community gathering to discuss reconciliation in his riding in Burnaby, B.C.

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole struck a similar tone of reflection and celebration in his Canada Day message, though O'Toole did not explicitly reference the recent discoveries at former residential schools.

"We are not a perfect country, but our shared commitment to the values of Canada means that we should use this national day of celebration as an opportunity to recommit to building a more inclusive and just society today and in the future," O'Toole wrote.

A march in Ottawa to honour residential school victims

While in-person Canada Day celebrations were cancelled for the second consecutive year in Ottawa due to the pandemic, at least 1,000 people marched to Parliament Hill today for the "every child matters" walk, held in recognition of Indigenous children who died while attending residential schools.

People wearing orange clothing gathered near the Centennial Flame in front of Parliament, where the Canadian flag remains at half-mast in recognition of the recent discoveries at residential schools.

Chanelle Barnaby, a member of the Eel Ground First Nation in New Brunswick, hoped the march would focus the country's attention on reconciliation.

"It's not about cancelling Canada Day, it's about recognizing and mourning our kids that never came home," she told CBC News.

Barnaby noted that Indigenous people are grossly over-represented in Canadian prisons and in foster care programs. She said Canada must commit to fulfilling the 94 calls to action in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's report.

"This is happening, the genocide is continuing," she said. "We want our kids home, and we want support for healing."

Canadian Heritage plans to still go ahead with virtual Canada Day events, including an online music show featuring English, French and Indigenous artists.