Canada’s national holiday on Thursday was marked by a grim reckoning over its colonial history, after more than 1,000 unmarked graves were found near former boarding schools for indigenous children.
Several cities across the country cancelled their traditional Canada Day celebrations, usually marked by fireworks and barbecues. The hashtag #CancelCanadaDay was trending on social media, and rallies in support of the indigenous community were held around the country.
The 154th anniversary of the Canadian Confederation came one day after 182 unmarked graves were found near a former boarding school in British Columbia where indigenous children were forcibly assimilated.
The discovery was the latest in a series that have outraged the country, with 751 similar graves found near a school in Marieval in western Saskatchewan province last week, and 215 found at the end of May at another school in Kamloops, British Columbia.
Until the 1990s, some 150,000 indigenous, Inuit and Metis youngsters were forcibly enrolled in the 139 schools, where students were physically and sexually abused by headmasters and teachers who stripped them of their culture and language.
More than 4,000 died of disease and neglect in the schools, according to a commission of inquiry that concluded Canada had committed “cultural genocide.”
“The horrific findings… 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,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a statement on Thursday.
“We as Canadians must be honest with ourselves about our past,” he said.
‘HAPPY DENIAL DAY’
Days after the Kamloops discovery, the city council of Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, voted unanimously to cancel their planned virtual celebrations.
In Toronto, demonstrators marched early on Thursday wearing orange T-shirts in support of indigenous communities, many carrying signs with slogans such as “No pride in genocide.”
Thousands held a similar rally in Montreal with slogans like “Happy denial day.”
“I come here because I have small children and I think it’s important to send the message that we don’t want our children to be touched, to be mistreated,” said an emotional Therese Dube, 56, an indigenous woman from the Akikamekw nation and a survivor of one of the residential schools in Quebec.
April Courtney Kipling, a 29-year-old indigenous woman, came “to remember, to recognize all the children who will never go home.”
Others had a more pointed reason for showing up. “Canada Day is like celebrating genocide,” said Olivia Lya, a 22-year-old Innu woman.
“Anyone celebrating Canada on July 1 is celebrating oppression,” said Nakuset, co-organiser of the Montreal Native Women’s Shelter, in a statement.
Several indigenous people noted the presence of non-indigenous Canadians at the Montreal rally.
“It’s hopeful, it shows that people are listening,” said Nadine Bellerose Lavallee, a 50-year-old Metis woman.
A statue of Queen Victoria, the 19th century ruler of the British empire, was covered in red paint and toppled in Winnipeg, in the central Canadian province of Manitoba, while at least ten churches suffered damage in Calgary, in the western province of Alberta, local media reported.
The Canadian flag on the Peace Tower in Ottawa was flown at half-mast to honour indigenous children, as was the flag on the central tower of the Quebec National Assembly.
“This year, the tragic history of residential schools has overshadowed Canada Day celebrations,” said Quebec premier Francois Legault.
But opposition leader Erin O’Toole defended Canada Day. “The road to reconciliation does not start by tearing Canada down,” the Conservative leader said, admitting that Canada is “not a perfect country.”