Canada Day is in desperate need of a rebrand.
The national holiday has traditionally celebrated the anniversary of confederation, which brought together three separate British colonies to form the country of Canada, and has been observed every July 1 since 1868, under the name Dominion Day until 1982.
For many in the modern era, the day is marked by street parties, trips to the lake, fireworks and all manner of maple leaf attire — traditions that don’t leave much room for sombre reflection on the lasting impacts of colonization on Indigenous communities or the racism that persists throughout our society today.
Canada isn’t the welcoming, tolerant, multicultural haven our national myths describe and Canada Day isn’t a celebration for everyone who lives here. To perpetuate both as fact is a disservice to this country’s potential and the glorification of a Eurocentric version of history that simply isn’t accurate.
We’re only 10 days away from the annual festivities and calls to rethink the holiday have been growing in the wake of the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves at residential school sites across the country and the killing, apparently driven by hate, of a Muslim family in London, Ont. The news cycle has been a bevy of horrors that have forced a collective reckoning with Canada’s history and its rosy modern-day facade.
While some were quick to denounce London’s alleged hate crime as un-Canadian, facts of the 2017 Quebec City mosque terror attack would disprove that charge. Islamophobia is alive and well in Canada.
Many people expressed shock at the discovery of the remains of Indigenous children at residential school sites, yet families of students who died far away from home have known about the horrific legacy of these places for generations. The express purpose of the church-led, government-funded school system was to "kill the Indian in the child" and its work was no secret: politicians of the day spoke openly about its function and newspapers covered the system with regularity. The last school closed in 1996.
A recent survey conducted on behalf of the Assembly of First Nations found that only 34 per cent of Canadians are familiar with the residential school system, while 67 per cent claim to know little or nothing about it. Sure, the topic has only recently made its way into public school curriculum, but there’s been plenty of opportunities for the general public to learn about Canada’s attempt at cultural genocide.
In 2006, the government entered into a settlement agreement with victims of the abusive residential school system. In 2008, then-prime minister Stephen Harper apologized to survivors on behalf of Canada. In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada published the findings of nearly a decade of work collecting thousands of testimonies from First Nations, Métis and Inuit people who were forced to attend these schools as children — all of these documents are publicly available online. At this point, ignorance seems willful.
So then, how can we celebrate the history of a country most Canadians don’t know? How can we celebrate the idea of a country that doesn’t exist?
Victoria’s city council recently voted unanimously to abandon its Canada Day festivities in light of the news out of Kamloops.
Instead of cancelling the deeply ingrained holiday, local officials should use this year’s event as an opportunity to educate and reflect on the country’s true history while centering the experiences of Indigenous and racialized Manitobans.
Canada Day is already going to look different amid the pandemic. Let’s use this opportunity to usher in new traditions.