Pushing my cart around the grocery store, I rolled past a table loaded with celebratory red and white cupcakes, butter tarts adorned with pastry maple leafs, cakes with tiny flags stabbed into thick icing, and the sight of it all made me feel sick. Mere days before, headlines across the country shared news of the “discovery” of 751 unmarked graves at a former residential “school” in Saskatchewan, or the bodies of neglected and abused Indigenous children who were part of a nation-wide colonial experiment.
The “discovery” on Cowessess First Nation is one of several horrific “discoveries” in the past 5 weeks, with the total body count now over 1000. And less than 3% of the former residential ‘schools’ have been searched. (I say “discoveries” because there are folders in filing cabinets in our government offices and truths hidden deep in church basements that correlate to these “discoveries”—this isn’t ancient history we are unearthing.)
The heartbreaking news has triggered many conversations that have touched on everything from Catholicism, and the lousy non-apology from Pope Francis, to reviewing history lessons we did (or didn’t) receive at school. With the first of July nearing, the subject of Canada Day has been a focal point for many discussions.
Like thousands of other Canadians, I’ve been having conversations with my parents and partner, friends and colleagues about what this day represents, and what it should look like this year. It surely cannot look like what it has, and yet I’m still seeing small towns lined with pots overflowing with red and white geraniums, flags proudly flying high, and bins at checkout lines stuffed with plastic Canadiana junk, from beach balls to beer cups.
For many, especially individuals and families that arrived from war-torn countries or places of political unrest, Canada is a safe haven, a place that welcomed them in desperate times, and provided opportunity for a better life. They’ve shared with me that the idea of canceling Canada Day feels disrespectful—they are forever grateful to be here!
The residential “school” nightmare doesn’t erase this reality, or other stories that inspire a sense of pride, but residential “schools”, MMIWG2s, a failure to provide clean drinking water and the many other devastating effects, policies, and evil practices of colonialism, are part of who we are, and each and every day we are realizing just how much.
We are sickened by the magnitude of horrors that have been inflicted upon Indigenous Peoples. We are also all grappling with our understanding of Canada, and how we, as individuals, fit within the big picture. What privileges have we been afforded at the expense of others? Looking straight into the mirror is revealing complicated and ugly truths that many of us either didn’t see before, or maybe knew about, but willfully ignored.
Healing can only happen when the full extent of truth is acknowledged. Anyone who has undergone any kind of seismic shift in their life knows this – be it divorce, addiction, massive debt, or whatever – you cannot fix anything unless all the cards are on the table and you know exactly what you are dealing with (or so said the therapist I visited when my first marriage was imploding).
To have any kind of celebration on Canada Day is to intentionally deny the truth, to pretend that we, as a country, didn’t rip 150,000 children from their parents arms and send them to prisons with the goal of cutting off all links to their culture, and indoctrinating them with European values and religion. There is nothing worse than this.
The Canada Day that we know, that has been, has only ever glorified a particular version of ourselves that is one-sided, or the history many of us learned in school. It has never acknowledged how this country was truly built, or how it has prospered through theft of land, and theft of children. Wealth and power has been accumulated through genocide.
Every Canadian must ask themselves what a 153rd “birthday” means? How can we commemorate colonial oppression, a history of violence, with frosted red and white cupcakes? This day also completely ignores the fact that Indigenous Peoples have been here for 10,000+ years.
So, knowing what we all know now, where do we go from here? Right now, the pieces are all on the floor and we’re figuring out how to put them back together. It’s overwhelming, but there are so many powerful thought leaders providing guidance.
We’re continuing to pay close attention to the Indigenous voices who have heavily influenced us over the past decade. Not sure where to start? Listen to Connie Walker’s Missing and Murdered podcasts, watch Sarain Fox’s documentary Inendi, about her Aunt Mary’s experience at St. Joseph’s Residential School for Girls in Spanish, Ontario. Find out why Alethea Arnaquq-Baril was compelled to make Angry Inuk. Read our interview with Elle-Maija Talifeathers, co-director of The Body Remembers When The World Broke Open, inspired by a real-life incident on the streets of Vancouver. Find out why Jennifer Podemski started The Shine Network, or how living through the Oka Crisis shaped actor K Devery Jacobs, and how it informs her work with MadeNous. Read Cherie Dimaline’s Empire of Wild: you will never look at cottage country the same way again. See what Yolanda Bonnell has to say about what life was like growing up in Thunder Bay, a response she wrote after reading Tanya Talaga’s Seven Fallen Feathers. Learn from young Water Warrior Autumn Peltier who is doing more for climate justice in Canada than any MP. Or hear from 70 different Indigenous people, hailing from 15 different communities, in the new podcast Telling Our Twisted Histories hosted by Kaniehti:io Horn, which decolonizes language one word at a time.
All of these people, and other Indigenous artists and storytellers and activists, have helped us better understand the full picture, and inspired us to take action. They have encouraged us to reexamine everything, because every single thing must be reexamined.
Canada Day cannot be what it was. Not now, not ever. It is also just a day, and the change we are dealing with right now is a forever journey. There is no finish line; the learning never stops, nor do the steps we need to take towards a better future.
On July 1st, Toronto Council Fire invites everyone to join the Every Child Matters Walk, to honour and support former students of residential schools, and the thousands of children who perished while attending them. More info here.
The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line is available 24-hours a day. For more information on the program, please refer to the FNHA website.