O'Toole accuses activists of 'tearing down' Canada after towns cancel Canada Day events

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole addresses the Conservative caucus during a meeting in Ottawa on Wednesday, June 23, 2021. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press - image credit)
Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole addresses the Conservative caucus during a meeting in Ottawa on Wednesday, June 23, 2021. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press - image credit)

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole said today he's troubled by the cancellation of Canada Day celebrations in some municipalities and accused "a small group of activist voices" of continually talking down the country rather than acknowledging its many successes.

In a speech at the final Conservative caucus meeting before the House of Commons goes on its summer break, O'Toole said that while Canada's history is littered with injustice and wrongdoing, that doesn't justify cancelling the nation's birthday — a time to give thanks for "living in the greatest country in the world."

O'Toole said the recent Kamloops residential school discovery is "very troubling" and "dreadful." He called it evidence of the "grave injustices" committed against Indigenous peoples.

But the reported discovery of these remains shouldn't lead cities like Victoria, Penticton, B.C. and La Ronge, Sask. to do away with July 1 festivities altogether, O'Toole said.

WATCH: Erin O'Toole reacts to Canada Day cancellations

"I can't stay silent when people want to cancel Canada Day. I'm very proud to be Canadian and I know most people are as well," he said.

"We are not a perfect country. No country is. There is no place on this planet whose history can withstand close scrutiny. But there is a difference between acknowledging where we've fallen short and always tearing the country down."

He said July 1 should be a day when citizens "rededicate" themselves to Canada and "tackle the challenges and inequalities that our country faces. It's time to build Canada up."

O'Toole sought to link the municipal cancellations to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. He accused the Liberal government of standing by silently while some cities do away with planned celebrations. "Who is asking Canadians whether they want Canada Day to be cancelled?" O'Toole said.

While some cities have opted out, the federal government is pressing ahead with an elaborate two-hour virtual show to celebrate the 154th anniversary of Confederation. More than a dozen musicians will be on hand for a series of performances.

Canadian Heritage, the department responsible for the national day, has compiled a "celebration kit" to help people celebrate at home while most of the country remains under COVID-19-related restrictions on gatherings.

But some members of the prime minister's cabinet are not in a celebratory mood. Asked about O'Toole's defence of Canada's birthday, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said July 1 can be a "deeply wounding" time for some First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples because of the country's history of colonial violence.

He said while Canada is among the greatest countries in the world, "that isn't the shared reality" for many people who live here.

"It isn't a rah-rah time, particularly in my position," he said of Canada Day. "I certainly have mixed views on it ... there have been atrocities committed on this land and we need to reflect upon that."

WATCH: Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller on Canada Day 2021

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett said she will wear an orange shirt on July 1 — orange is often worn to mark the sordid legacy of the residential school system. She said she intends to celebrate a great country that has made some "terrible mistakes."

"It is about understanding that harm was done. That we're sorry. And that we're putting in place things to make sure it never happens again — the true restorative justice that First Nations, Inuit and Métis are looking for," she said.

Victoria's city council voted unanimously to suspend Canada Day festivities this year, citing the Kamloops discovery. The city's mayor, Lisa Helps, said some First Nations peoples are too grief-stricken to participate and a planned virtual gathering will be scrapped.

Victoria Canada Day/Twitter
Victoria Canada Day/Twitter

The mayor of Penticton, B.C., John Vassilaki, said his city wanted to "show respect and reconciliation with what happened in Kamloops" by cancelling its planned Canada Day programme.

"It did help when we knew our capital city cancelled it. So that's a good sign for the rest of the province to follow," Vassilaki said of Victoria's decision.

Some people who were horrified to learn that as many as 215 children could be buried at the site of the former Kamloops school have taken to social media to urge other leaders to cancel Canada Day events, using the hashtag #CancelCanadaDay in their posts.

Idle No More calls for protests

The Idle No More movement, a group of Indigenous rights activists, said Canada Day must be cancelled "to honour all the lives lost to the Canadian state — Indigenous lives, Black lives, migrant lives, women, trans and two-spirit lives."

"Canada remains a country that has built its foundation on the erasure and genocide of Indigenous nations, including children," the group said in a media statement.

"We refuse to sit idle while Canada's violent history is celebrated. We are once again calling on Indigenous land, water and sky protectors and allies to come together and disrupt the celebration."

The group urged its followers to interrupt Canada Day events across the country through sit-ins and impromptu round dances, and to establish camps and hold marches and rallies to send the message that there is "no pride in genocide."

The B.C. Museums Association, the body that represents the province's museums, galleries and heritage organizations, said its members should consider changing how Canada Day is celebrated by downplaying the "colonial voice of these celebrations" and looking for ways to "make space for dialogues on decolonization and reconciliation."

The association said its members may want to consider reallocating funds earmarked for Canada Day programming to "directly support decolonial efforts" in local communities.

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