Canada Day Muted As Nation Reckons With Residential School Legacy

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On July 1, 1867, the confederation known historically as the Dominion of Canada became official with four provinces, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia. Six more provinces joined between 1870 and 1949.

A native flag representing the Warrior Society marks the location of the former Shubenacadie Residential School in Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia, Wednesday morning, June 11, 2008 as a special closed ceremony to honor and remember the residents of the school takes place. The Canadian government will formally issue an apology to natives Wednesday afternoon for the abuses they suffered while attending various residential schools across Canada. (AP Photo/Mike Dembeck, CP)

The celebration of Canada Day is complicated this year. Many people are not celebrating at all, and others are celebrating differently due to recent discoveries of the bodies of hundreds of indigenous children in unmarked graves at former Indian Residential Schools in British Columbia and Saskatchewan.

On May 27, 215 bodies were discovered at a former residential school site in Kamloops, British Columbia. On June 23, 751 bodies were discovered at the former Marieval Residential School in Saskatchewan, and on June 30, a First Nation near Cranbrook, British Columbia announced 182 bodies had been found buried near a former residential school.

Residential schools operated across Canada from the 1880s until 1997. Aside from basic education, they were designed to assimilate indigenous people into white society.

According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, approximately 150,000 children were taken from their families, sometimes forcibly, to schools hundreds of miles from their home communities. Residential schools were federally funded, but administered by the Roman Catholic, Anglican (Episcopal), Presbyterian, and United Churches. Physical and sexual abuse, and suspicious deaths occurred among students, leading to a legacy of trauma among victims and their families. Approximately 4,000 children went missing while attending residential school.

In 2008, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued an official apology in Parliament for the consequences residential schools have had on indigenous people. Since the discoveries of remains during the past five weeks, pressure is on Pope Francis to issue an official apology on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church. According to CBC Radio on June 30, indigenous leaders are to meet with the Pope in December to discuss an apology.

Official Canada Day events were already canceled in many communities due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Cornwall and Perth are among the Eastern Ontario communities where festivities were canceled for pandemic reasons. In Kingston, the city canceled the fireworks display for pandemic reasons, but a small outdoor market and children’s activities were scheduled.

In Ottawa, The virtual and televised celebration presented by the government will still go ahead. The festivities on Parliament Hill are not taking place because of the pandemic. However, the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau has decided to not hold its outdoor Canada Day events this year due to the residential school situation. Protests against the celebration of Canada Day are planned for Parliament Hill on July 1.

However, other communities have canceled or shifted the focus on Canada Day to show respect for indigenous issues. The shift in focus follows a suggestion by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that Canadians take a more reflective approach, rather than a celebratory one this year. The balance is a delicate one to strike socially and politically. Conservative opposition leader Erin O’Toole has said Canada Day should not be canceled.

Two provincial capital cities, Fredericton, New Brunswick, and Victoria, British Columbia canceled their Canada Day celebrations.

A virtual celebration of entertainment is scheduled to go ahead on Thursday evening in the United Counties of Prescott and Russell, located between Ottawa and Montreal. On June 29, organizers announced the addition of poetry recitals by two local poets, one indigenous, one non-indigenous would take place at the beginning of the program to show respect and sensitivity to the victims of residential schools.

Respect for indigenous identity has also influenced decision-making in other communities. The council of the Municipality of South Dundas, which fronts the St. Lawrence River in Ontario and includes the villages of Iroquois and Morrisburg, recently decided that the indigenous logo on the village of Iroquois water tank would be removed when the tank is repainted. The image of the plains indigenous person was the logo of the former Village of Iroquois before it was dissolved and is not an accurate representation of the people of the Iroquois Confederacy. The words Iroquois and South Dundas will now be displayed on the water tank instead.