WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
On Canada Days gone by, thousands of people flocked to downtown Dartmouth and Halifax to watch live music and take in the fireworks show, but this year is different.
The usual celebratory events went unplanned because of the pandemic, and the appetite for celebration was further diminished because of a growing tally of unmarked graves that have been discovered on or near the grounds of former residential schools across Canada since the end of May.
But several hundred people did still gather in downtown Halifax Thursday afternoon — not for a celebration, but for a memorial.
Chants of "do the right thing" echoed around Peace and Friendship Park, directed at the federal and provincial government as a call to action on reconciliation with Indigenous communities.
Organizer Caitlyn Moore said the event was meant to educate, as well as commemorate the children who died at residential schools. She spoke to the crowd about the recent gravesite discoveries in B.C. and Saskatchewan.
"The genocidal tactics of the Canadian government did not end with the closure of these schools," she said.
"Birth alerts, foster care, forced sterilization, forced abortions and missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit individuals are just a few of the issues still very much alive today," said Moore.
Moore distributed seeds for orange flowers that attendees planted in some of the park's open garden beds, and later the crowd marched toward the waterfront to the tune of Mi'kmaw drums.
'We're not going to ignore the bad'
Jarvis Googoo has celebrated on July 1 before, and he said he might do so again down the road, but this year, he's skipping the festivities.
"My favourite [Canada Day event] was always the Epic Canadian Race that would take place around Lake Banook in Dartmouth," Googoo said in an interview.
"I'm a proud Mi'kmaw person who was proud to run in a race that celebrates what's good about Canada, but at the same time, we're not going to ignore the bad, and I want that to be addressed."
For Googoo, that meant travelling from Dartmouth, where he lives, to his home community of We'koqma'q First Nation in Cape Breton, and joining a 26.8-kilometre memorial walk for the Indigenous children who were forced to attend residential schools and never returned home.
Googoo said he thinks Canada Day should be celebrated again, but only after more concrete steps toward reconciliation have been taken.
"By next year if the situation is the same … if there are still boil water advisories going on, if Mi'kmaw fishers are still being attacked for trying to exercise their right to a moderate livelihood, I have no issue not celebrating next year," he said.
In some communities across Canada, celebratory events for July 1 have been cancelled. In Halifax, the usual events were never planned because of the pandemic. The municipality has been encouraging people to use the day — a statutory holiday that many workers have off — to reflect on Indigenous and Canadian history, and reconciliation.
Cheryl Copage-Gehue, Indigenous adviser for Halifax Regional Municipality, said that message was crafted in consultation with the chiefs of Nova Scotia's 13 Mi'kmaw bands.
"[The chiefs] are not about to cancel culture, but they were more about creating opportunities for Indigenous history to be learned," Copage-Gehue said in an interview.
For anyone looking to start or continue their own research, Copage-Gehue recommended reading the testimonies and calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. For local history, she recommended Out of the Depths, a book by Isabelle Knockwood that includes the stories of survivors of Shubenacadie Indian Residential School.
Looking ahead, Copage-Gehue said she expects Halifax will host Canada Day events in the years ahead, but she wants them to look different.
"If we're going to be celebrating Canada Day, let's also celebrate the Indigenous portion of it as well. So let's create our opportunities for next Canada Day to have maybe a cultural gathering at Peace and Friendship Park, where the average citizen can come in and learn more about our dance styles, our music, our cultural practices, our traditional games like waltes," she said.
In the meantime, Copage-Gehue said she's working with municipal staff on a framework for Indigenous reconciliation.
Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for survivors and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.
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