Indigenous leaders in the South Okanagan community of Penticton are commending the city for cancelling 2021 Canada Day celebrations in the wake of recent discoveries of more than 1,000 unmarked graves discovered at three former residential schools in Canada.
“I appreciate their recognition for what is going on,” said Penticton Indian Band Chief Greg Gabriel.
There is anger and grief among many Canadians following the discovery of an estimated 751 unmarked graves at a former Saskatchewan residential school site. This came just weeks after the remains of 215 children were found at another former residential school site in B.C.
On Wednesday, the Lower Kootenay Band announced that ground-penetrating radar had revealed 182 human remains in unmarked graves at the site of the old St. Eugene’s Mission Residential School in Cranbrook, B.C.
“Members of my own family attended (the school),” Gabriel said.
“We have many members in our community that attended that school and now they have to relive what they probably knew existed there and relive the pain and the agony that they suffered over the years they attended.”
Penticton Mayor John Vassilaki said it isn’t appropriate to wave flags, dress up and participate in festivities at a time of mourning.
“We didn’t believe we could host appropriate celebrations in a time of such grief and we consulted with Chief Gabriel, and it was the opinion of the Penticton Indian Band, the same as us, that we should cool it this year, and we will continue in the future,” he said.
Thursday marks 154 years since Canada became a country.
“It just adds to the part of this dark Canadian history that we are now dealing with and the pain and the grief that, once again, it has hit our community,” Gabriel said.
Vassilaki urges British Columbians to mark the day by reflecting on Canada’s history and consider how to become a more inclusive community.
“We encourage people to be with their families and take some time to learn more about the experience of the Indigenous people and the Canadian history as a whole,” Vassilaki said.
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, is also a member of the Penticton Indian Band.
He said the city’s actions represent a symbolic gesture that non-Indigenous people stand in solidarity with their First Nations neighbours.
“We’ve shared this piece of land side by side, the river runs through it, for over 100 years and we definitely appreciate that kind of concrete steps,” Phillip told Global News.
“It’s because of the colonial legacy, the racist history of this country, and we should acknowledge that that has contributed to the residential school and the unmarked graves of children.”
Dozens of Canada Day celebrations have been cancelled in cities across the country, including Victoria.
Under the slogan of #CancelCanadaDay, a number of rallies are being organized in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Manitoba on Wednesday, July 1, in solidarity with the Indigenous community.
“We will not celebrate stolen Indigenous land and stolen indigenous lives. Instead we will gather to honour all of the lives lost to the Canadian State,” said Indigenous rights group Idle No More, which is spearheading the national rallies.
Gabriel urges patience and understanding as the country reckons with its dark past.
“People are upset over cancelling Canada Day but, my God, it is a dark time that we are coping with right now.”
—With files from Saba Aziz