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Should Canada Day be a point of celebration? Or a day of mourning and sombre reflection?
In the wake of the reported discovery of 215 Indigenous children’s remains near a residential school in Kamloops, B.C., and the deadly attack Sunday against a Muslim family in London, Ont., a debate has been brewing over whether it is appropriate to hold Canada Day celebrations this year.
On Twitter, the hashtag #cancelCanadaDay has trended, with some saying now’s not the time for patriotic chest-thumping but for spreading awareness about anti-Indigenous racism and Islamophobia.
Citing the “challenging moment we are in as a Canadian nation,” Victoria’s city council announced this week it has voted unanimously to drop a scheduled virtual Canada Day broadcast and encouraged people to reflect on “what it means to be Canadian in light of recent events.”
Saying it refuses to “sit idle while Canada’s violent history is celebrated,” the Indigenous-led Idle No More movement is sponsoring rallies across the country July 1 intended to “honour all of the lives lost to the Canadian State — Indigenous lives, Black lives, Migrant lives, Women and Trans and 2Spirit lives.”
The Star reached out to members of Indigenous, Muslim and academic communities for their perspectives.
Their thoughts and suggestions ranged widely. Here’s what they told us:
Sabreena Ghaffar-Siddiqui — professor of sociology and criminology at Sheridan College in Toronto
“Canada Day needs to turn into a day of mourning, not celebration. My idea is not that we should cancel Canada Day, but Canada Day almost needs to be cancelled in the way we celebrate it right now, the way we observe Canada Day as this day of pride and almost chest-thumping — ‘We’re Canadians, we’re better than the rest of the world because Americans, they’re racists, and Brits, they’ve gone and colonized the world, but Canadians, we’re multicultural and welcoming of immigrants.’ It’s starting to stink. We’re starting to see that’s all not true.
That past is very much connected to the present. The history of oppression, colonization and genocide, it’s just reflected in different areas, like the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in foster care, the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the prison system.
And of course let’s talk about what happened Sunday — which really shouldn’t have come as a surprise. (Prime Minister Justin) Trudeau said, ‘How do we explain this?’ Actually, we can explain it by listing all the policies or motions that have centred Muslims in conversations where we’ve been maligned, vilified, singled out as a problematic group. All that rhetoric that is fuelled by this idea of white supremacy, it justifies in the mind of people like the young man who carried out the attack, that people like this family don’t belong here.
We’re in an ugly moment in Canada. I don’t think with this ugly face of ours we can on Canada Day stand up and celebrate who we are.
There’s a rule on Remembrance Day that you can’t clap, you can’t make noise. It’s a day of remembrance, of mourning, of paying tribute and respect to people who died. To me, the only way to move forward is if we turn Canada Day into a day of remembrance. In fact, it should be the Day of Reconciliation, a day to be solemn and sad, wear your orange shirts, spread awareness about the existing inequalities.
You can’t do both — have a full celebration and a full (day of) mourning. It’s just being somewhere in the middle and reflective of basically how we are about most things, not fully dedicated or committed to change.”
Paul Michel — special adviser to the president on Indigenous matters at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C.
“I feel that Canada Day is a powerful way to educate our Canadian citizens. It’s a platform where we call on our multi-ethnic nationalities to come forth. Every event I’ve been to has Filipino, East Indian, Bangladesh, Indigenous foods there. And it has a cultural showcase of dancing. They have Indigenous dancers, Métis dancers, Japanese dancers, Chinese dancers. It’s a wonderful way to celebrate but it’s a powerful way to educate.
I was down here for Canada Day with my twin brother in Kamloops. I asked, ‘What are you doing Canada Day?’ I had been working for the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George for so long. He says, ‘We do a big lahal game.’ It’s a traditional (Indigenous) handgame. We just played that activity in the middle of Canada Day at Riverside Park. It was huge. Everybody goes, ‘What’s happening? Wow, this is neat.’ We could educate them. It wasn’t a demonstration, it was a real game.
When I came down here to work at Thompson Rivers University — I started here six years ago — we challenged the city of Kamloops to a lahal game. We had a friendly challenge on Canada Day.
One year they set up a storytelling hut and so I went down and told a traditional Secwépemc story so people gathered around. This is what Canada’s about.
Unfortunately there’s still this ugliness. We will have a moment of silence for the Indigenous 215 children, for the Muslim family in London, Ont. But the way we solve this is to come together. I think it’s an excellent platform. I will always celebrate Canada Day because I know lots of our allies are non-Indigenous and they stand beside us. It’d be tragic if we say ‘eliminate Canada Day,’ because then I think the ugliness, the negative and the racism rules.”
Xaxli’p Chief Colleen Jacob — of the St’at’imc Nation in B.C.
“In light of the confirmation of the unmarked graves and its association with the Canadian government, the Queen and church involvement, it would be appropriate to acknowledge this as a reminder on Canada Day. It should be recognized as a day of mourning for our Indigenous people and all that we had to endure throughout the history of Canada.
As a community, we do not celebrate Canada Day. When I was younger, I don’t think I understood the full meaning until I started learning about our Indigenous experience in history. The goal was to assimilate us into Canadian society and take away our identity and way of life. I believe this is still true today. Rather than respecting and accepting us for who we are as Indigenous people and allowing us to continue practising our way of life, there were laws and policies put in place to control our people in every aspect.
It is something how our people did survive and hold on to what we have. There needs to be a strong recognition that our people now deserve respect from Canada and its people. Our people paid greatly for the existence of what is now called Canada. This is where acknowledgment of Canada’s true history can be brought to light showing there needs to be a new way of thinking. To accept our existence as Indigenous people and to support us in our goals to maintain our way of life because it is still in jeopardy.”
Sara Asalya — executive director of Toronto-based Newcomer Students’ Association, a national non-profit
“This year, in particular, with the discovery of the Indigenous children’s remains, I don’t think we should be celebrating Canada Day. There has historically been a lot of funding allocated from the government for organizations and community members to celebrate Canada Day. I think this year it shouldn’t happen. I think this funding should be directed to supporting the Indigenous community and standing in solidarity with them to raise awareness and implement some of the 94 calls to action (from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission). There has to be some sort of national mourning day.
We are issuing statements and standing in solidarity but there isn’t any action happening from the government. It’s hard to celebrate Canada Day when we haven’t built that reconciliation framework with Indigenous communities — there’s so much ongoing colonial racism and oppression.
And it’s connected to what happened to that Muslim family on Sunday. Systems of oppression are connected. We, as racialized and Muslim communities, have always been made to feel we don’t belong — the hate crimes and Islamophobia and racism is escalating in an alarming way.
We need to stop and not celebrate because there are so many things we need to fix before celebrating Canada.
I’ll tell you what we have done in our organization. We always engage in some sort of learning and raising awareness, even though it can been difficult to engage newcomers and immigrants in such a conversation, especially those coming from war-torn countries, refugees fleeing violence and coming from dictatorships. They are grateful for Canada.
But it’s important to say: What did you learn about the Canadian colonial legacy and Indigenous people? You try to integrate that conversation as part of their settlement journey.
Something we’re trying to do this Canada Day, we’re trying to pull together the idea of having a summit at the national scale centring Indigenous people. Let’s have a dialogue, have an exchange of knowledge and ideas, do a blanket exercise, build solidarity between different movements.
I have children and they learn in school about Canada Day. It’s hard for me to say there’s no Canada Day. But they’re old enough, they have seen the news about the 215 children and the Muslim family. So for us, it doesn’t make sense for us to celebrate when we are grieving and mourning. The flags need to be down on Canada Day.”
Rachel Collishaw — Ottawa teacher and president of the Social Studies Educators’ Network of Canada
“All of my colleagues in school have been addressing these topics with their students, not just in social studies class. We want to provide room for students to safely share their thoughts and feelings and hopefully provide more context to explore further questions.
I think Canada Day should be a time for reflection as well as celebration. Particularly as it relates to Indigenous peoples and perspectives, we have a tendency as educators to focus on the negative. Certainly there is a lot of negative and we need to understand the truth and what actually happened.
But I think we need to make space for celebrating the amazing things about Indigenous Peoples and all people in this country. That’s a balance we have to strike in our classrooms. We want students to be aware of the truth and what happened, but we also need to balance that out so we don’t end up re-victimizing people who are already marginalized.
Canada Day can provide us with a great way to do that. It’s not that Canada is awful full-stop. It’s that Canada has some things that need to be improved.
I think for myself, the thing I personally like to do on Canada Day is get out on the land and enjoy it. If I can, I make time to learn about the land I’m on, whose land it was, read an article about history and express my gratitude.
Another way to celebrate Canada Day is to strengthen relationships. Learning more is a first step. And then taking action is the next step — strengthening relationships with the people whose land you’re on. Or with neighbours. If we’re talking about the tragedy in London on Sunday, just strengthening your neighbourly relations, reaching out to that new family in your community, and celebrating together. It doesn’t have to be a loud, patriotic celebration. There are ways to celebrate more quietly and to make space for reflection.”
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Douglas Quan is a Vancouver-based reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @dougquan