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‘I don’t feel that celebratory’: Cities grapple with how to mark Canada Day amid residential school discoveries
June 29, 2021

From Charlottetown to Victoria, cities are grappling with how, or if, they should celebrate Canada Day this year after the grim discoveries of hundreds of unmarked graves laid bare the country’s dark colonial past.

Canadians are entering the late stages of a yearlong pandemic and in some parts of the country, July 1 offers the first opportunity to celebrate with almost no public health restrictions.

But for many, the lead up to Canada Day has been sombre and horrifying.

Just last week, the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan said ground-penetrating radar flagged an estimated 751 unmarked graves, thought to be adults and children, near the Marieval Indian Residential School site. Several weeks prior to that, unmarked graves believed to contain the remains of 215 children were flagged in Kamloops, B.C., near the Kamloops Indian Residential School.

The findings are leading Canadians, just coming out from the dark days of the COVID-19 pandemic, to confront the history of the residential school system that saw some 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and M├ętis move through it and at least 4,000 die.

In recent days, a cascade of towns and municipalities in Canada have cancelled or curbed celebrations, while others are going full steam ahead.

On Monday, Sol Mamakwa, MPP for Kiiwetinoong and a member of Kingfisher First Nation, posted a video to Twitter saying he wished he could wish everyone a happy Canada Day, “but I cannot,” he said.

“Some people are asking, ‘How do we celebrate?’” he said. “Every Canadian pays a price for our shared history. We, as Indigenous people, paid, in full, with our lives, our families, our languages, our way of life, and our spirituality.

“This year, Canada Day should be nothing more than a day of reflection.”

Ontario Premier Doug Ford echoed his sentiments on Monday, saying this Canada Day is a “time for Ontarians to reflect on what has happened to the First Nations communities in the past for ... decades and decades.

“It’s an absolute tragedy. Our heart breaks for their communities,” said Ford, who has committed $10 million over three years to find and commemorate unmarked graves at Ontario’s 18 residential schools, the last of which closed in 1991.

Toronto decided it wouldn’t hold events due to the ongoing COVID-19 situation in the city, said Mayor John Tory in a statement on Monday, but added July 1 is a day to “seriously reflect on the entirely unsatisfactory history we have had as a country with Indigenous Peoples.”

Towns across the country are having similar discussions, albeit with varying results.

St. Albert, a town of about 66,000 just outside Edmonton, said it would be cancelling its fireworks since they were to be launched from Mission Hill, the site of the former Youville Residential School.

Some, such as Councillor Ray Watkins, the first person of colour elected to St. Albert city council, believe there are also unmarked graves there.

Watkins said it was hard to watch his city’s decision to cancel Canada Day fireworks lead to some espousing “insensitivity and racism.”

“It just saddens me,” he said, fighting back tears during an interview with the Star on Monday. “It’s hard to hear how insensitive some people can be to this.”

That’s partly why Watkins said he supported St. Albert’s decision to cancel the fireworks on Canada Day, even though it was a decision made by staff and not voted on by council.

“My heart really bleeds for First Nations people,” he said. “It’s a disgrace to the country how we’ve treated, and continue to treat, the original habitants of this land we call Canada, you know. I feel it.”

The city said it would try to host the fireworks in a different location on a different day and is still going ahead with some events on July 1.

Elsewhere in Alberta, Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson has said the city will go ahead with celebratory fireworks.

July 1 will also be the first day for Albertans to celebrate with almost no public health restrictions, including the provincial mask mandate and limits on indoor dining.

Watkins says he doesn’t “really want to judge anybody else for their decision on how they’re going to celebrate Canada Day.”

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“Somebody could have lost their gramps, and their dad, their uncles, and everything, in the war, and they fought for this country and they want to celebrate Canada Day. So, I’m not going to say you can’t celebrate Canada Day.

“But for me, personally, I don’t feel that celebratory,” he said.

In Victoria, B.C., where city council unanimously voted in favour of cancelling its July 1 plans after the news out of Kamloops, Mayor Lisa Helps says the response there has been “relatively positive.”

After she found out a group of Lekwungen traditional dancers cancelled their plans to join the city’s Canada Day celebration broadcast that was to go out on a local station, Helps said Victoria’s city council, which is both “very left wing and very right wing,” unanimously voted to cancel it.

“You can’t have a celebration when our First Nations neighbours are grieving,” she said.

“Cancel culture drives me nuts,” she added, “this is not #CancellingCanadaDay because when you do that, it’s an either/or. It doesn’t allow for the complexity of the country that we live in and the cities that we live in.”

Later this year, Helps says they’ll put out a broadcast “reflecting on what it means to be Canadian in light of all of the things that are coming to light.”

“While reconciliation is certainly a national project and a national undertaking, every city in Canada is located on different First Nations territory, and every city will have a different relationship with First Nations governments,” she said.

Across the country, in the birthplace of Confederation, Charlottetown city officials announced last week that the P.E.I. capital would be returning to hosting in-person celebrations for Canada Day this year, after the pandemic caused a cancellation of last year’s events.

Julie McCabe, chair of the province’s Economic Development, Events, and Tourism committee, said the city has been consulting with the province’s Indigenous, Black, LGBTQ, Acadian and new immigrant groups in planning its July 1 activities.

“To date, there has been no discussion of cancelling Canada Day celebrations locally by the city council,” McCabe said.

While other municipalities in Atlantic Canada have curtailed or cancelled their Canada Day events, Charlottetown -- along with Ottawa, Trois-Rivieres, Winnipeg, Banff and Whitehorse -- is one of several virtual host cities taking part in a nationwide Canada Day event sponsored by the federal Department of Heritage.

“As the birthplace of Confederation, Canada Day is a very special celebration to us in Charlottetown,” said Mayor Philip Brown. “This Canada Day, it is important that we, as a city, come together to celebrate our diversity and our multiculturalism, two cornerstones of our Canadian cultural fabric.”