As calls grow to cancel Canada Day in the wake of the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves at residential schools across the country, one local business owner has made a statement through her work.

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As calls grow to cancel Canada Day in the wake of the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves at residential schools across the country, one local business owner has made a statement through her work.

A simple orange tank top, featuring an upside-down Canadian flag and a short but powerful message: "No pride in genocide."

It’s being sold by Blanche Chief, a 42-year-old mother of three, an Oji-Cree woman from Fisher River Cree Nation who also goes by her spirit name White Feather Woman, and a student completing her third year of Indigenous studies at the University of Winnipeg.

She’s also the owner of Nimis Creations, a one-woman Instagram-based boutique which usually sells art and jewellery based in beadwork and made from materials sourced from the land. Her work comes from a place of personal growth: her mother was a residential school survivor, and Chief’s own story includes 11 years of sobriety spent collaborating with Indigenous community groups.

"As an Indigenous woman, I’ve, unfortunately, had the life that a lot of Indigenous people have," she said.

She was compelled to design several orange shirts after the announced discovery of 215 children’s graves at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.

"Every Canada Day, I’ve had a feeling that it wasn’t always right, because Canada was founded on the backs of Indigenous people, so it just didn’t seem right," she said. "As times progressed to where I am now, I feel safe enough to have a voice and safe enough to speak up."

Chief owns Nimis Creations, a one-woman Instagram-based boutique which usually sells art and jewellery based in beadwork and made from materials sourced from the land. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

Chief owns Nimis Creations, a one-woman Instagram-based boutique which usually sells art and jewellery based in beadwork and made from materials sourced from the land. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Orders have rushed in for the "No pride" design: 50 in the last two days, and she doesn’t have enough shirts to keep up with further requests.

Chief said she believes the sudden interest has come, in part, from people who aren’t Indigenous being forced to reflect on Canada’s history after the recent news of graves at residential schools.

"You want to bring that awareness to non-Indigenous people, and give non-Indigenous people an opportunity to be allies of Indigenous people, and by them wearing the orange T-shirts, it shows that they’re standing together with us in solidarity," she said.

Orange is the colour of the reconciliation movement and to recognize the harms done by the residential school system.

The conversation around how Manitobans should approach Canada Day has run the gamut in recent days.

The Town of Churchill has cancelled its July 1 celebrations.

On Tuesday, the Sage Creek Residents Association cancelled its planned, socially-distanced fireworks show.

"This is not a July 1 to celebrate," the southeast Winnipeg organization said, citing the recent discoveries at former residential schools. 

A march at Portage and Main, along with prayers, speeches and a moment of silence, organized on social media and set for July 1, meant to mourn the Indigenous children found and those still missing has received hundreds of responses.

Signage on orange paper reading "Please no fireworks on July 1st!" and asking readers "consider not celebrating colonialism, land theft and genocide" has been spotted around Winnipeg.

At The Forks, typically a central point for local Canada Day celebrations, there will be no in-person events or fireworks for a second year due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.

The virtual events planned are meant to foster "a collective commitment to build a better future for all children," and will include a speech from Niigaan Sinclair (Indigenous curator at The Forks), a moment of silence, words from local elders, and a theatre piece. It will end with a virtual fireworks show set to O Canada.

Premier Brian Pallister encouraged Manitobans to celebrate the country, "warts and all," for a second time during a news conference Tuesday.

"I think we have no claim to perfection, nor does any country, but I think Canada and Manitoba have worked very, very hard on many issues that we deserve to acknowledge, and we also have to work harder on some issues that we’re now beginning to acknowledge, perhaps better than we did in our past," the premier said.

Chief said she felt hopeful listening to the way the conversation around the national holiday has changed, but there was more to be done.

"It’s still the beginning, and there’s still such a long way to go," she said. "And who knows? We might be suppressed again, Canada Day may still go on and exist here on after. But the fact that it’s being talked about today, that’s a step in the right direction."

— with files from Erik Pindera

malak.abas@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: malakabas_

Malak Abas

Malak Abas
Reporter

Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.