There may be no fireworks on July 1 at The Forks but sparks are still flying, after a mayoral candidate criticized the departure from massive Canada Day celebrations the site has hosted for decades.
Jenny Motkaluk took to Twitter and Facebook noting her disappointment that the "It’s a New Day at The Forks" event will replace a specific celebration of the country.
"On July 1st, I will be proudly celebrating Canada’s birthday because I love my country unconditionally. I guess I can’t do that at the Forks because I’ve recently learned that it’s cancelled. P.S. - I’m currently accepting invitations to all actual Canada Day parties," the Twitter post stated.
“I think it’s very important that, as Canadians, we have an opportunity to celebrate Canada Day every single year without undue influence or people trying to make us feel like there’s something wrong with celebrating Canada Day." — Jenny Motkaluk
The comment quickly drew scathing replies, with many arguing it ignores the mistreatment of Indigenous Canadians and the need for reconciliation. Some also attacked Motkaluk personally, calling her racist, hateful or ignorant.
The posts also attracted hundreds of "likes" and some remarks of agreement.
In an interview, Motkaluk stood by her comments.
"I think it’s very important that, as Canadians, we have an opportunity to celebrate Canada Day every single year without undue influence or people trying to make us feel like there’s something wrong with celebrating Canada Day … I find it surprising that it’s controversial or somehow taking a stand to say I love my country unconditionally," she said.
The Forks North Portage Partnership announced last week that it would replace its traditional Canada Day celebrations this year with cultural showcases, including powwow dancing, drummers, soccer and basketball tournaments, as well as small tents with live music. The changes followed consultations with Indigenous people, newcomers, youth and others. Live music on the mainstage and the usual fireworks display won’t be included.
The celebration was reassessed after last Canada Day, when a group toppled statues of Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth at the Manitoba legislature following a rally to honour Indigenous children believed to be buried in unmarked graves on the grounds of former residential schools.
Motkaluk stressed she supports calls for reconciliation and that Canada Day should be celebrated in the most inclusive way possible.
"During difficult times, it’s all the more important to celebrate the things that unite us and being part of Canada is one of the things that unites all of us," said Motkaluk.
Mayoral candidate Don Woodstock bluntly dismissed the new event as an example of ‘cancel culture.’
"Every avenue we get to fight this cancel culture, we should fight it," said Woodstock, calling for more inclusive Canada Day celebrations instead.
"We have issues that we need to work on … but it shouldn’t stop us from getting together as a people to celebrate," he added.
Other mayoral contenders were quick to support The Forks.
"I think they’ve created a safe space … to talk about some very difficult issues, such as the unmarked graves," said Rana Bokhari. "I think The Forks did a really good job, I think they consulted in the right way and I think, as Winnipeggers, we have to come together and allow people to heal and meet them where they are at."
She noted The Forks itself has been an Indigenous meeting place for thousands of years.
"I am a proud Canadian but I’m also a guest on Treaty One territory," said Bokhari.
“I think The Forks did a really good job, I think they consulted in the right way and I think, as Winnipeggers, we have to come together and allow people to heal and meet them where they are at.” — Rana Bokhari
In a written statement, mayoral hopeful Shaun Loney also expressed support for the changes.
"The Forks has been a significant meeting place for Indigenous people for thousands of years. I can see why having a party there to celebrate Canada Day at that specific location would seem disrespectful especially given the revelation around unmarked graves," wrote Loney.
Scott Gillingham, who is also running for mayor, said both the focus of Canada Day and the aim of reconciliation is to unite people, so it is unfortunate heated social media debate has "taken on a life of its own to divide" them.
"The Forks has a great program planned and I’m not sure that it’s the role of a mayoral candidate to micromanage their events … The bigger point of the matter that really, I can’t stress enough, is (the debate is) to the point of being overblown," said Gillingham.
Between the events at The Forks and many other Canada Day parties, Gillingham expects there will be opportunity "for both contemplation and celebration on Canada Day."
While he was initially disappointed to see fireworks and other traditions at The Forks scrapped, candidate Rick Shone said the new plan should offer creative and inclusive ways to bring people together.
"From a personal standpoint, I celebrate Canada Day. It’s an important day for me and my family … But I also think where we’re at right now in our story of reconciliation, it’s also a day where we can really reflect on our past," said Shone.
In an email, candidate Chris Clacio applauded The Forks for "doing their part to be historically accountable to different communities that feel Canada Day does not truly represent that specific community" and said the decision should be left up to the organization itself.
The Forks previously told the Free Press some activities could return for future July 1 celebrations and additional feedback will be sought before July 1, 2023.
Mayoral candidates Robert-Falcon Ouellette, Idris Ademuyiwa Adelakun and Desmond Thomas could not be reached for comment by deadline Tuesday.
The municipal election will be held Oct. 26.
Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves to tell the stories of this city, especially when politics is involved. Joyanne became the city hall reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.