The Current

Reflecting on the meaning of Canada Day in the wake of residential school discoveries

The discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves near former residential schools has sparked a conversation about Canada’s history — and how Canada Day should be marked this year. The Current asked people to reflect on what the country means to them, and how they reconcile the nation’s good with its bad.

The Current asked people what Canada means to them, and how they reconcile its good, with its bad

A person waves Canadian flags during Canada Day festivities in Vancouver, B.C., on July 1, 2013. The Current asked people how they're feeling about the country, and July 1st, in the wake of unmarked graves being discovered at residential schools. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

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WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

In the 1990s, Falen Johnson's school teacher stood up in front of her Grade 5 class and announced they would be studying Indigenous history. 

The Secret Life of Canada podcast co-host remembers how she "puffed up," certain she and the other Indigenous kids in the class would ace the course.

What the teacher said next shocked her.

"'Before the white man came here, Indians ran around naked,'" said Johnson, recounting the lecture. "And then I shrunk." 

When Johnson went home that night and asked her dad if what the teacher said was true, he shook his head and said "no."

Misconceptions about Canada's history with Indigenous people are still happening today, Johnson told The Current's Matt Galloway. And as this country approaches a Canada Day like no other, Johnson says it's important to look at "the footnotes of history books" to get a full understanding of how this country was created.

Part of that history involves residential schools, which were set up to assimilate thousands of Indigenous children who were forced to attend them between the 1870s and 1990s. In recent weeks, the Tk'emlups te Secwépemc First Nation in B.C. announced the discovery of the possible remains of 215 children at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, while Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan announced the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves near a different school. Another B.C. First Nation said Wednesday it had discovered unmarked graves as well. 

A woman lays a red dress on outdoor steps covered with shoes.
Indigenous peoples from the Pacific Association of First Nation Women hold a ceremony in honour of reports that the possible remains of 215 children were found at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in B.C., on May 28. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The discovery has sparked a conversation about Canada's history — and whether or not Canada Day should be celebrated this year.

Johnson said it can be disconcerting to examine the difficult parts of Canada's past, "especially if you're coming through the Canadian education system and you've been told the same stories and the same history over and over."

"But if we can't address those, then how could we ever move forward?"

The Current asked people what Canada Day means to them, and how they reconcile the country's good with its bad. Here's what they had to say.

Aya Wadi, Syrian refugee and business owner

Aya Wadi, photographed in her restaurant in Thunder Bay, Ont. (David Jackson/UNHCR)

Aya Wadi says Canada welcomed her with "open arms" when she arrived as a refugee four years ago. She was fleeing the Syrian civil war, and was forced to leave her brother behind in Germany.

Now, she calls Thunder Bay, Ont., home. She's since become fluent in English and opened a restaurant, Royal Aleppo Food, where she said she's grateful to share part of her culture with patrons who want to learn more about where she's from.

"There's so much to be thankful for living in this beautiful country, and to me Canada Day is a day dedicated to appreciating the quality of life we are blessed with, and to admire the ethnic diversity that makes Canada the country it is," she said. 

Still, she's heartbroken over the recent discoveries of unmarked graves at the former residential schools in B.C. and Saskatchewan.

Canadians "must condemn the dark past of our country," she said.

Mark Sakamoto, Canada Reads-winning author

Mark Sakamoto is the author of Forgiveness: A Gift from My Grandparents, which won Canada Reads in 2018. His grandmother was among thousands of Japanese Canadians who were relocated to internment camps by the federal government in the 1940s. (Submitted by Mark Sakamoto)

Before the Second World War, Mark Sakamoto's grandparents were living "quite a wonderful life" in Canada, where they were born, he said.

They had two boats, fished, and went to Japanese and English schools. Then, "they lost everything."

His grandmother was among thousands of Japanese Canadians relocated to internment camps by the federal government in the 1940s, under the War Measures Act.

Sakamoto's grandparents "did their best not to bequeath that harm [from being interned] onto the next generation," he said.

In the wake of the news about residential schools, Sakamoto said his Canada Day will be sombre and reflective. But he remains optimistic about the country.

"You need to know your darkness to know your light," he said. "I would hate to have the candle of the promise of Canada snuffed out maybe when we need it most."

Riley Yesno, writer from Eabametoong First Nation 

Riley Yesno is an Anishinaabe writer from Eabametoong First Nation, in northern Ontario. (Lisa Macintosh)

Riley Yesno acknowledges that some Canadians may feel conflicted about Canada Day celebrations this year. But she argued the best thing you can do for a place you love "is hold it accountable."

"Canadians and Canada have a choice, where we can choose to just look away, to keep doing the things that we've always done, or we have a chance to do things a little bit differently," she said. 

Yesno plans to take part in an anti-Canada Day rally, and mourn with her community. She hopes others do the same. Instead of spending money on fireworks, she encouraged people to donate to Indigenous friendship centres.

"Perhaps most importantly … talk to your children and to your family and to your loved ones about why we're not celebrating on that day," she said.

Paul Michel, former chief of Adams Lake Band

Paul Michel holds a drum while standing beside the memorial at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, on Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation in Kamloops, B.C. (Jennifer Chrumka/CBC)

Paul Michel was essentially born and raised in the backyard of the Kamloops Indian Residential School, which both his parents were forced to attend. His father later went on to teach there, he said.

Michel, a member of the Secwepemc Nation, and special advisor to the president on Indigenous matters at Thompson Rivers University in B.C., plans to tone down his usual July 1 celebrations.

"Our hearts are hurting" over the Indigenous children who were buried at residential schools "without respect, without dignity, without ceremony, without their elders, without community," he said.

But Michel doesn't want to do away with Canada Day. He sees it as a chance to educate people about Indigenous people's experiences, as well as celebrate, he said.

"It hurts me to think we may eliminate something for the reasons of tragedy and horror … or racism," he said, adding that Canada should honour its multiculturalism. "That's what we need to celebrate."

Chantal Petitclerc, senator and Paralympian

Canadian Paralympian Chantal Petitclerc has won 14 gold medals in wheelchair racing. She says she's very proud of Canada, even if it's not perfect. (Getty Images)

Until she was 17, Paralympian Chantal Petitclerc felt conflicted about her identity as a Canadian and Quebecer. She's always been proud of her French Canadian heritage and language.

But competing in wheelchair racing events around the country "really opened my mind … to the value and richness of our differences," she explained.

"To begin travelling all across Canada and to come in touch with all the different [realities], culture, food preferences … it's made me, you know, a better person and very, very proud of Canada and what it has and what it can bring, even if, as we know, it's far from being perfect."

This Canada Day, Petitclerc is focusing on reflection. She said politicians have a responsibility now more than ever to ensure Indigenous voices are heard, and that healing can happen.

"I don't know how it should happen, to be honest, but it should," she said. "And words will not be enough. I know that much."

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.

Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Julie Crysler, Alex Zabjek, Cameron Perrier and Jennifer Chrumka.

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