A former federal cabinet minister instrumental in the creation of The Forks is calling on its board to reverse the decision to change its Canada Day celebrations.
"I was pretty upset when I saw it, and I still am," Lloyd Axworthy said Monday about the move to drop traditional July 1 festivities (including night-time fireworks) in an event called New Day at The Forks.
"As citizens, we need every so often a place celebrate who we are as a community. We all have to work a bit at being good citizens, and part of it is to come together to learn what we’ve achieved," said Axworthy, who was a Winnipeg MP from 1979 to 2000, and Manitoba MLA from 1973 to 1979.
"There is a pattern developing where we almost are awkward to call ourselves Canadians. The Forks was done with the idea it would be a downtown gathering place for all Winnipeggers. I’ve always taken great satisfaction with how it developed and how it became a public space," the former president of the University of Winnipeg said.
“There is a pattern developing where we almost are awkward to call ourselves Canadians." – Lloyd Axworthy
"It became what our city stood for: immigration, diversity, reconciliation — and 75,000 to 100,000 people came to The Forks (for Canada Day celebrations). But it has become focused on minority grievances — as awful as they are — and has left out the rest… I would hope the board, and the government which appoints them, would reconsider."
The Forks said last week — in the wake of ongoing discoveries of potential gravesites of Indigenous children at former residential schools — it had held community roundtable discussions, specifically with Indigenous groups, newcomers and youth, about what July 1 should look like at the riverside site.
What came out of those consultations and community engagement was a day to showcase "a culturally rich opportunity for gathering with the intent to acknowledge what we heard in those engagements, while bringing people together to learn from each other and celebrate our connectedness."
The event will feature Indigenous-led spaces for ceremony and healing, as well as other areas for families to share food and fun, including soccer and basketball tournaments, powwow dancers, drummers and smaller-scale live music. The main stage, where in the past bands blasted live music, will instead highlight a recorded playlist by Manitoba Music.
When asked about the annual July 1 gathering name change, during the unveiling of a youth art display as part of National Indigenous Peoples Day (Tuesday), Premier Heather Stefanson said: "I think those are things that are decided by The Forks, and that’s fine."
The premier said she will be taking in celebrations around the province.
"I think we need to celebrate Canada Day," she said Monday. "We recognize, I think, as a country, that we have some challenges that we’ve faced in our past. We need to recognize those — that’s what we’re here for today, to talk about reconciliation and reconciliation action. We’re very committed as a government to that.
"But I think there are also many new Canadians that come to Canada, that come to Manitoba, that want to celebrate... So, I think for those in our community, it is very important that we celebrate Canada Day."
Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman was unavailable for comment.
Spokesman Jeremy Davis said: "The mayor fully supports The Forks’ ability to manage their operations and events as they see fit… The mayor will continue to celebrate Canada Day with his family and with Winnipeggers in the community."
Clare MacKay, vice-president strategic initiatives at The Forks, said she is hoping to speak to Axworthy about his concerns. (A key point in the development of modern The Forks was the establishment of the Core Area Initiative in the 1980s, advocated for by Axworthy.)
"We haven’t cancelled Canada Day, we’ve just reimagined it," MacKay said. "We’ve just organized it based on the information we got from the roundtable discussions."
“We haven’t cancelled Canada Day, we’ve just reimagined it... We’ve just organized it based on the information we got from the roundtable discussions.” – Clare MacKay
MacKay said because the day’s programming will end at 6 p.m., there didn’t seem to be any point to holding a standalone fireworks display hours later.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, it didn’t seem the time was right to hold an event which would draw tens of thousands of people "squeezed in one spot," she added.
Sean Carleton, an assistant professor in the University of Manitoba’s department of history and Indigenous studies, said The Forks doesn’t have to apologize.
"National holidays change, and that’s okay," Carleton said. "I know in the current moment, people are grappling with the hard truth of the country’s past, the ongoing legacy of residential schools… Maybe in 10 years we will look back and say, wow, we met that responsibility and we were able to come up with something more inclusive."
Carleton added there are some still upset July 1 is no longer called Dominion Day. It was changed to Canada Day in 1982, after a private member’s bill and the repatriation of the Canadian Constitution.
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