Mattagami First Nation, Moose Cree First Nation and the Town of Moosonee won't be officially celebrating Canada Day this year.
Instead, communities are using July 1 as a day to remember residential school survivors and those who didn't make it home.
The discovery of unmarked graves at former residential school sites across Canada has sparked calls to ‘cancel’ Canada Day celebrations.
This week, Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan announced the recovery of an estimated 751 bodies near the former Marieval Indian Residential School. In May, the remains of 215 children were found at a former residential school site in Kamloops, B.C.
Moose Cree chief and council passed a resolution declaring July 1, 2021, a Day of Mourning for its members.
Chief Mervin Cheechoo said the council felt it was inappropriate to officially celebrate Canada Day in wake of the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves.
In a survey conducted by Moose Cree, the majority of respondents indicated they had little interest in acknowledging and celebrating Canada Day this year, according to Cheechoo.
“We set aside July 1, 2021, the Day of Mourning to remember the survivors. To remember those who didn’t make it home, stand with our brothers and sisters across this nation. And also (it’s) a sign of sympathy to those who are still struggling today,” the chief said.
The Town of Moosonee announced the cancellation of annual Canada day activities via a social media post.
"With the residential school tragedies in our hearts, thoughts, and minds it has become clear that this is not a time for celebration but rather a time to show solidarity with our First Nation Community members, our Moose Cree-Mocreebec neighbours, First Nations communities up the coast and First Nation communities across Canada as we mourn and grieve these unfolding tragedies together," reads the statement.
In Ontario, there are 18 known residential school sites, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC).
The TRC identified 12 locations of unmarked burial sites in Ontario and estimated that at least 426 children who attended residential schools in Ontario are known to have died.
Timmins is located on the traditional lands of Mattagami First Nation. The residential school closest to Timmins was Chapleau Indian Residential School.
Mattagami First Nation Coun. Jennifer Constant said she has mixed feelings about Canada Day and she has never celebrated it herself.
As a community, Mattagami won’t be celebrating Canada Day this year. Typically, no celebrations are held except for fireworks, Constant said. This year, they will be replaced with ceremonies like smudging to give people an outlet to support each other.
“Up until last week, I didn’t feel like Canada celebrations shouldn’t occur. Our ancestors signed a treaty to grant Canada to become a state and it is what it is. But after this particular week I feel burdened,” she said. “I feel like a lot of Indigenous people have this grief, mourning period that they have to go through. To see a country celebrating would feel like a slap in the face.”
If people choose to celebrate Canada Day, that’s their own prerogative, Constant said. She noted she won’t take much offence to that because some people who lead stressful lives just want to forget about certain things, while others may not understand the magnitude of how oppressive the systems are for Indigenous communities.
“This year, more than anything is a time for people to recognize they need to learn and need to understand the true history. They need to make sense of why you see some of the situations in the community,” she said.
On the James Bay coast, there were residential schools in Fort Albany and Moose Factory.
In previous years, Canada Day celebrations in Moose Factory were held on the grounds of the former Bishop Horden Hall residential school, according to the chief. There used to be food vendors, children’s activities and games, a stage set up for people to sing, and fireworks.
“There were feelings this year about that. Do we really want to celebrate Canada Day on the same grounds where a lot of our members have faced trauma and horrible experiences?” Cheechoo said.
This year, there will be a moment of silence on July 1. The First Nation also ordered orange T-shirts for members to wear on that day but it’s not finalized yet, Cheechoo said.
After July 1, there will be ongoing discussions with the residential school survivors, youth, elders and members regarding next year’s Canada Day celebrations, according to the chief.
Cheechoo said the search at the former Moose Factory residential school site is “most likely” to happen.
“We want definitely discuss with our membership and former residential school survivors how they feel. I’m pretty sure it’s going to be on our agenda in the next while,” he said.
For Cheechoo, Canada has downplayed and ignored the existence of the destructive legacy of residential schools. He said the federal government is still fighting survivors in court and urged the Canadian public to learn about the residential school system, its impact on Indigenous peoples and to support them in their healing journey.
“We’ve had enough good gestures. We need to move to real action and real investment to assist First Nations to heal and recover from residential school experience in every way,” he said.
Constant said the society doesn't understand the burden and suffering that comes with just being Indigenous.
"People don't fathom this 'wonderful' country they live in could have done that and continues to do that," she said.
In Timmins, a virtual Canada Day celebration is planned because of the pandemic.
A 24-hour residential school crisis line, established to provide support to former students and their families, can be accessed at 1-866-925-4419.
Dariya Baiguzhiyeva, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, TimminsToday.com