Cross Country Checkup

Amid calls to cancel Canada Day, historian says opposition to the holiday has a long history

In light of the news that preliminary findings suggest there are hundreds of unmarked graves at former residential schools in B.C. and Saskatchewan, some say that Canada Day should look different this year. Historian Matthew Hayday says that critics of Canada have been around almost as long as the holiday itself.

Canada Day a time to grieve and reflect on the role of residential schools, experts say

In light of the news that preliminary findings suggest there are hundreds of unmarked graves at former residential schools in B.C. and Saskatchewan, Indigenous and non-Indigenous people say that Canada Day should look different this year. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

For Angela White, this July 1 is a time to grieve those who died at residential schools, not to celebrate Canada.

"This Canada Day is different for all Canadians, not just the Indigenous population," White, executive director of the Indian Residential School Survivors Society, told Cross Country Checkup. 

"This Canada Day should be, in my opinion, a moment or a pause for grieving and the ability to rebuild and acknowledge those pasts with a better future with us rooted in it."

Amid the announcement of preliminary findings that remains of an estimated 215 children were discovered at burial sites near a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike have called for a scaled back holiday this July 1.

Those calls have become louder after Cowessess First Nation said Thursday that 751 unmarked graves were found at the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan.

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While information about burial sites has long been shared within Indigenous communities, White said the revelations are news to many Canadians who have been taught Canada is a country that celebrates and embraces diversity. Now, she said, that facade has been shattered.

"When we're talking about grieving, I think we're talking about not just the discovery of those little bodies in Kamloops and Saskatchewan, but you're grieving the loss of an ideology of what Canada's supposed to mean," said White.

Long history of opposition to Canada Day

Conservative Party leader Erin O'Toole said Wednesday he was troubled by the decision of local governments who have cancelled Canada Day plans, and criticized what he called a "small group of activist voices" calling for a change to the holiday.

Speaking with Chris Hall, host of CBC Radio's The House, O'Toole said: "Let's show today we're making Canada live up to the ideals that built the country, but we fell terribly short of in the past.

"It's about building up the country, not tearing it down." 

But according to University of Guelph historian Matthew Hayday, opposition to the patriotic holiday is nearly as old as the holiday itself.

"It's not like Canada Day has been without controversy and without groups saying that it shouldn't be celebrated — that there's nothing to celebrate — and particularly for communities that have been marginalized in the Canadian grand narrative," he said.

The scale of celebrations on July 1 has ebbed and flowed for decades, with larger ceremonies usually taking place alongside major anniversaries or efforts for greater national unity, Hayday said.

A woman waves a Canadian flag while sporting a patriotic outfit during Canada Day celebrations in Vancouver, on July 1, 2019. Historian Matthew Hayday says that the scale of the national holiday has ebbed and flowed for decades. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

In 1927, the federal government invested heavily into Canada Day to mark the 60th anniversary of Confederation. Through the 70s, the holiday attempted to bring Canadians together as the Quebec separatist movement aimed to divide. And in the wake of the Oka Crisis in 1990, celebrations aimed to highlight Indigenous culture and promote preservation of Indigenous languages — something Indigenous leaders questioned, Hayday said.

"In the run up to Canada 125, the head of the Assembly of First Nations, George Erasmus, basically said, 'What is there to celebrate given the history of Canada's relations with Indigenous peoples?'" he told Checkup.

In the 1960s, at least one Canada Day celebration included a performance by Indigenous children at the Williams Lake, B.C., residential school. Students were dressed head-to-toe in Scottish tartan playing the bagpipes, Hayday recalled.

"It's just, from a modern-day perspective, such a striking example of the assimilationist intent of those schools," he said.

Reflect on role of residential schools, says professor

As Canadians reflect on the country's history of residential schooling, Hayday agrees that it's not a time for celebration, but acknowledges that observances will take place.

Crystal Gail Fraser, an assistant professor in the Department of History & Classics and the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta, doesn't celebrate Canada Day. For Indigenous peoples, the holiday is a difficult one to celebrate because of this country's history, she explains.

That's why she scheduled her wedding for July 1, 2009 — a strategic decision, she said, that provides the opportunity to celebrate something far more personal. 

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Still, she believes that it's up to individual cities and towns, as well as people, to decide how to mark the holiday.

"If you want to celebrate Canada Day, if you want to celebrate your Canadianness ... I think there are also appropriate ways that you can do that," she said.

One approach, Fraser said, is to reflect on the role residential schools have played in the creation of Canada — and how Canadians have benefited from that.

"If children weren't institutionalized and killed at residential schools, would the lands that your family purchased actually be available? Or would an Indigenous family still be occupying that land?" she asked.

"I'm just encouraging more reflection to understand that Canada, in its current form, everyone who lives here, who engages in society in a way, benefits from the policies of Indian residential schools. We all profit from Indigenous dispossession of land."

Written by Jason Vermes with files from Mikee Mutuc and Steven Howard. 

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by these 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.