In families, when a birthday falls during a time of tragedy or crisis, it might be modestly marked but it’s seldom cause for fireworks or full-bore celebration.

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This article was published 30/6/2021 (408 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.


In families, when a birthday falls during a time of tragedy or crisis, it might be modestly marked but it’s seldom cause for fireworks or full-bore celebration.

This is not due to any want of love or pride. It’s because of perspectives and priorities.

In Canada, as the 154th anniversary of Confederation arrives, we are embroiled in a similar season of mixed emotions, anger, shame and conflicting pulls.

It is only proper that the news of recent weeks should have had that effect.

The discovery of almost 1,000 unmarked graves on the grounds of former residential schools in British Columbia and Saskatchewan has rocked the country.

For First Nations, it is evidence of what they have been telling Canadians for a long time.

For non-Indigenous Canadians, it is a harsh lesson in the history that was lacking in their formal education and a horror from which it is impossible to avert our gaze.

Indigenous leaders have warned that there are more such disturbing discoveries to come.

Cadmus Delorme, chief of the Cowessess First Nation where the Saskatchewan graves were found, has been a much-needed voice of wisdom.

Current generations, current governments and their leaders are not responsible for residential schools, he has said. But just as we inherit the benefit of what previous generations accomplished, we must also assume responsibility for the wrongdoing they wrought.

The challenge of confronting the bitter reality and ongoing legacy of residential schools lies in our place and time.

That is why the mere cancellation of Canada Day festivities, as has been happening across the country, is, while a dramatic statement, actually the easy way out.

Cancellation scraps events that were already greatly reduced due to COVID-19. It wastes an occasion that could be turned to advantage.

Few things are more difficult – for individuals, institutions or nations – than the debunking of myths about ourselves and the identities we’ve nurtured.

And just as slavery is the unresolved original sin of the United States and roils the country still, the treatment of Indigenous people in Canada is our great national offence and reconciliation with Indigenous Canadians the unfinished business of nation-building.

It is one of the shortcomings of our species that we seldom learn anything on a good day. But pain gets our attention. For too long, First Nations have carried that pain largely alone.

So, what’s required this Canada Day is, perhaps, a national stock-taking, an inventory, the same sort of practice that prudent businesses conduct regularly.

In such exercises, we are not looking for our virtues. Those are not the things that will threaten our prospects. We are looking for products we don’t sell to the world, those aspects of ourselves that have been stuffed in the dark corner of a backroom or warehouse, the goods gone rotten.

Yes, we have virtues. But for the purposes of this Canada Day, our virtues – courage, the prizing of decency and fairness – are of use only in so far as they help us address our failures and our wrongs.

Something was profoundly wrong in our history, in our suppression and ignoring of it. And something continues to be wrong in Canada’s relations with Indigenous peoples.

The discovery of the graves was “a shameful reminder of the systemic racism, discrimination and injustice that Indigenous peoples have faced – and continue to face – in this country.”

The residential school system operated in various ways from the 1830s until 1996, removing about 150,000 Indigenous children from their families and taking them to boarding schools – most run by Catholic organizations on behalf of the federal government.

This Canada Day, we mourn that harm. We mourn those graves. We mourn the complicity and culpability of Canada and Canadians that caused them to exist.

This Canada Day, we should read and educate ourselves, in conscious counterpoint to the national practice of averting our gaze.

“We all must put down our ignorance and accidental racism, of not addressing the truth,” Delorme has said. “We are not asking for pity, but we are asking for understanding.”

The canon of work by Indigenous writers is wide and wonderful. Memoirs of residential school, like Edmund Metatawabin’s Up Ghost River or The Education of Augie Merasty, are raw in their accounts of the abuses. Anything by Richard Wagamese is rewarding.

Most recently, this year’s searing winner of the Governor-General’s literary award, Five Little Indians by Michelle Good, deals with the consequences of residential school on lives of survivors after they re-entered society.

So, rather than merely scrapping our plans we should choose to modify them. This Canada Day should not be occasion of reflection, but resolve; not cancellation, but commitment.

It should not be a day of withdrawal into ourselves, but the coming together as a community to say: This is our country, grand but far from perfect.

Harm has been done, we mourn the lives lost, and we weep for those who still carry the pain.

But we are Canada. We can do better. We will.