Prime Minister Justin Trudeau struck a different tone in his Canada Day statement this year, as the country reels from the discovery of over 1,100 unmarked graves across three former residential school sites in Canada.
In the statement, Trudeau acknowledged that for some, July 1 is “not yet a day of celebration.”
“The horrific findings of the remains of hundreds of children at the sites of former residential schools in British Columbia and Saskatchewan have rightfully pressed us to reflect on our country’s historical failures, and the injustices that still exist for Indigenous peoples and many others in Canada,” Trudeau said.
“We as Canadians must be honest with ourselves about our past.”
Last week, Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan said that a ground-penetrating radar detected an estimated 751 unmarked graves at the site where the Marieval Indian Residential School once sat. The news came not long after the remains of 215 children were found at another former residential school site in Kamloops.
Just one day before Canada was set to celebrate its national pride on July 1, the Lower Kootenay Band said a search using the same ground-penetrating radar technology found 182 human remains in unmarked graves near a former residential school site in Cranbrook, B.C.
As communities and families reel from the news, some advocates have called on Canadians to hold off on the fireworks and fanfare for Canada Day this year.
“The recent discovery at Kamloops residential school has reminded us that Canada remains a country that has built its foundation on the erasure and genocide of Indigenous nations, including children,” read a post on Indigenous rights group Idle No More’s website.
“We refuse to sit idle while Canada’s violent history is celebrated.”
The government has faced questions about whether Canada’s government-run celebrations should still take place, given the dark discoveries that marked recent days and weeks.
Canadian Heritage is still holding its virtual Canada Day events, including an online concert featuring French, English and Indigenous musicians. However, as those events kick-off, the flag on the Peace Tower in Ottawa will sit at half-mast in recognition of the Indigenous children who died in residential schools across the country.
Trudeau has said he plans to spend the day celebrating with his family. His agenda also lists a closed-door meeting today with Phyllis Webstad, who is the founder of Orange Shirt Day — a national day of remembrance for victims of the residential school system.
In his Thursday statement, the prime minister also highlighted Canada’s accomplishments in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The pandemic has changed our daily lives, taught us hard lessons, and kept us apart. But through this challenge and crisis, Canadians were there for each other. We all — young and old — made personal sacrifices to help keep our communities safe and healthy,” he said.
“We put signs in our windows and banged pots and pans for our front-line health care workers. We ordered takeout and shopped at our local small businesses. And once vaccines became available, we got our shots as soon as possible, so our communities could return to normal.”
He said that today, Canadians can reflect on our accomplishments, while also looking forward to “what more we have to do.”
“This Canada Day, let’s recommit to learning from and listening to each other so we can break down the barriers that divide us, rectify the injustices of our past, and build a more fair and equitable society for everyone,” Trudeau said.
“Together, we will roll up our sleeves and do the hard work that is necessary to build a better Canada.”
Trudeau wasn’t the only leader to share his thoughts this Canada Day. Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole also posted a video on his Twitter in celebration of the day.
“Happy Canada Day. Despite the challenges this last year, Canadians have risen to the task with our determination, our resiliency, our compassion,’ O’Toole said.
“The challenges have been steep, but there’s hope on the horizon now as our country is finally starting to reopen. I firmly believe that our country’s best days are ahead of us.”
He added that his family is “excited to get to Nova Scotia” after the pandemic. He did not mention the recent residential school discoveries anywhere in his statement.
O’Toole did acknowledge the calls to celebrate Canada Day differently this year in a separate tweet, however.
“As someone who has served Canada and will soon ask for the trust to lead our country, I can’t stay silent when people want to cancel Canada Day,” he said.
“I am very proud to be Canadian and I know most people are.”
In a third statement, issued Thursday afternoon, O’Toole delved deeper into the issues that prompted calls to mark Canada Day differently this year.
“Canada is a great country and our commitment to freedom and dignity for all people also means we must acknowledge the injustices of our past and the inequalities of our present,” he wrote.
“We are not a perfect country, but our shared commitment to the values of Canada means that we should use this national day of celebration as an opportunity to recommit to building a more inclusive and just society today and in the future.”
O’Toole added that reconciliation with Indigenous peoples “must be a central focus of the Canadian future as it is a great failure of our past.”
“The road to reconciliation does not start by tearing Canada down, but by recommitting to building Canada and all its people up,” he said.
“We can celebrate the country that we are and the one we aspire to be.”
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, meanwhile, said that he plans to “honour” requests from Indigenous communities that Canadians mark Canada Day in “reflection” as opposed to “celebration.”
“When people are hurting – we have to be there for them. When we ignore injustices it does a disservice to us all,” he wrote in a tweet.
“When we ignore the impact of the horrible things that have happened – we give permission for them to continue. In reflection and in action we can and must do better.”
Parliament Hill also looked very different from previous years on Thursday. While past years have seen massive crowds of revelers dressed in red and white, this year the crowds were a sea of orange, the colour of the shirts worn to mark the memory of the victims of residential school.
“No pride in genocide,” they chanted as they walked onto the grounds of Parliament Hill.
Webstad, the founder of the Orange Shirt Day, was just six years old when her grandmother brought her to a store to choose clothes for her first day of school. She picked out a shiny orange shirt.
But when she arrived at the residential school, she was stripped of her clothing — including the orange shirt she had been so excited to wear.
“I never did wear it again,” said Webstad in a video explaining the origins of the shirt.
Demonstrators wore orange shirts adorned with messages, including “Indigenous Lives Matter” and “every child matters.”
“We will not celebrate the ongoing genocide within Canada against Indigenous people,” read the Facebook event for the demonstration.
“Instead we will gather to honour all of the lives lost to the Canadian state, including the many lives lost to residential schools. ”
— With files from The Canadian Press