OTTAWA — Following the discovery of hundreds of bodies in unmarked graves at former Indigenous children’s schools, communities across Canada are cancelling or changing plans to observe a patriotic holiday on Thursday, putting additional pressure on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to cancel national celebrations.
For decades, families were forced to send their children to boarding schools to assimilate them, in what a national Truth and Reconciliation Commission discovered in 2015 was an attempt to eradicate their cultures. With the discovery of bodies at two schools in Western Canada, the majority of which were children, many members of Indigenous communities and their leaders say it is inappropriate to celebrate the country behind the system at this time.
“Celebrating Canada Day is seen as inconsiderate to all the children whose lives were lost, and we encourage everyone to consider the price these children had to pay at the hands of the Canadian government,” said Chief Bobby Cameron of the Saskatchewan Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations in a statement.
Canada Day commemorates the date, July 1, 1867, when three British colonies merged to form the Dominion of Canada. Many Indigenous people have never celebrated Canada Day and consider their Canadian citizenship to be something that was forced upon them. Others, on the other hand, have actively participated in previous celebrations.
The Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan announced last Thursday that ground-penetrating radar had discovered the remains of 751 people on the grounds of a former residential school for Indigenous children.
In late May, the same technology discovered 215 unmarked graves on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. The Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation expects that figure to rise significantly once the final analysis is completed.
The findings in Kamloops have prompted Indigenous communities across the country to conduct searches for other former school sites, which are expected to take years and significantly increase the grim toll.
Because none of the bodies from the two schools have been exhumed, there is no way of knowing how or when they died, but the Truth and Reconciliation Commission discovered that disease, malnutrition, and physical, sexual, and emotional abuse were common at such schools.
Approximately 150,000 children passed through the system, which began in the nineteenth century and was not completely shut down until the 1990s.
The commission, which was established as part of a class-action lawsuit settlement with former students, estimated that approximately 4,100 children vanished from schools across the country. However, Murray Sinclair, an Indigenous former judge who led the commission, stated in an email this month that he now believes the number is “well beyond 10,000.” Several Indigenous leaders now estimate the figure to be three to five times Mr. Sinclair’s.
In comparison to other countries’ national holidays, Canada Day celebrations are less firmly woven into the country’s cultural fabric, and the day has always been less observed in French-speaking Quebec.
According to Matthew Hayday, a history professor at the University of Guelph in Ontario who has studied Canada Day, it took 12 years to make the date a holiday, and the federal government did not regularly begin hosting events on the day until the 1950s. Because of the pandemic, this year’s celebrations will be held virtually.
“The way the day is marked changes over time,” Dr. Hayday explained. “In some ways, if you had to cancel, this year is kind of an ideal year because the pandemic limits the amount of disruption.”
The largest celebration is usually centred on and around Parliament Hill in Ottawa, where a large concert stage is usually erected and a day and evening of musical performances is capped with fireworks.
The remains of what are presumed to be Indigenous children have been discovered at the sites of defunct boarding schools in Canada. Here’s what you should know:
- Background: Indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools in many parts of Canada around 1883 as part of a forced assimilation programme. The majority of these schools were run by churches, and they all forbade the use of Indigenous languages and cultural practises, often with violence. Disease was common, as was sexual, physical, and emotional abuse. Between the schools’ opening and closure in 1996, an estimated 150,000 children attended.
- The Missing Children: A National Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established as part of a government apology and settlement over the schools, concluded that at least 4,100 students died while attending them, many as a result of mistreatment or neglect, while others died as a result of disease or accident. In many cases, families never found out what happened to their children, who are now known as “the missing children.”
- The Discoveries: After bringing in ground-penetrating radar, members of the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation discovered 215 bodies at the Kamloops school, which was run by the Roman Catholic Church until 1969. An Indigenous group reported in June that the remains of up to 751 people, mostly children, had been discovered in unmarked graves on the site of a former boarding school in Saskatchewan.
- Cultural Genocide’: The commission concluded in a 2015 report that the system amounted to “cultural genocide.” Murray Sinclair, the commission’s chairman and a former judge and senator, recently stated that he now believes the number of missing children is “well beyond 10,000.”
- Apologies and Next Steps: The commission demanded that the Pope apologise for the role of the Roman Catholic Church. Pope Francis stopped short of saying one, but the archbishop of Vancouver apologised on his archdiocese’s behalf. Canada has issued a formal apology and offered financial and other search assistance, but Indigenous leaders believe the government still has a long way to go.
In an email, Steven Guilbeault, the federal minister whose department organises the capital’s celebrations, stated that the virtual celebrations would take place. However, he added that the government would focus its attention on commemorating residential school students on September 30, which has been designated as a statutory holiday by a recently passed law, National Day of Truth and Reconciliation.
“We recognise that for many people, Canada Day is not a time to rejoice,” Mr. Guilbeault wrote. “This has been a deeply emotional and traumatic time for Indigenous communities across the country,” she says.
Celebrations outside of the capital are typically organised by local governments or volunteer committees.
Several of them have now cancelled their plans in order to respect Indigenous communities.
“I acknowledge that the Indigenous community has suffered and continues to suffer and grieve,” Angie Hallman, one of the Canada Day organisers in Wilmont Township, Ontario, said in an online post announcing her group’s plans to cancel all celebrations, both in person and virtually, in support of Indigenous people. “We come to a halt, sit in silence, and weep with them.”
Celebrations were also cancelled by some local governments in British Columbia and Saskatchewan.
Last week, the leader of the opposition Conservative Party, Erin O’Toole, chastised cities and towns for cancelling celebrations.
“I can’t remain silent when people want to cancel Canada Day,” Mr. O’Toole said in a speech to his caucus, admitting that the discovery of the remains was a “necessary awakening” about the need for reconciliation between Indigenous people and the rest of Canada.
“But let us also channel the pain of a Canada falling short to build up the country, not tear it down,” he added.