Canada Day in Southwestern Ontario, already subdued because of the pandemic, will have a sombre feel in many centres as they honour nearly 1,000 Indigenous children whose unmarked graves recently were found at two former residential schools.
Some communities' July 1 celebrations, already limited by COVID-19 restrictions, have been cancelled in response to the discovery of the graves at the former residential schools in Saskatchewan and B.C.
Others are scaling back Canada Day plans, and memorial walks are being held in several centres, including London.
Instead of red-and-white, Indigenous leaders are asking residents to wear orange in a sign of support for their communities.
That colour and the slogan "every child matters" is associated with Orange Shirt Day, held Sept. 30 to recall the grim legacy of Canada's residential school system and its devastating impact on First Nations communities.
“We’re asking people to wear orange instead of red and white this Canada Day, as a show of solidarity with Indigenous peoples,” said Grand Chief Joel Abram of the London-based Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians that represents seven Indigenous communities in Ontario.
“I think it would be great if people would take that upon themselves for just one day to wear something in memory of those children," he said.
Orange became associated with the September event after an Indigenous woman told the story of how her orange shirt, a gift from her grandmother, was seized on her first day at residential school when she was six.
More than 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children were taken from their families and forced into the church- and government-run schools in a bid to assimilate them. The schools ran from the 19th century well into the 20th. The children often were abused and lost their languages and culture.
More than 4,100 children are known to have died at the sites, officials say.
A Saskatchewan First Nation said last week a search revealed what are believed to be 751 unmarked graves on the grounds of the former Marieval Indian Residential School east of Regina, weeks after 215 graves were detected at a former school site in Kamloops, B.C.
“The abuse and mistreatment that took place at residential schools was meant to eliminate us as a people,” said Chief Charles Sampson, of the Walpole Island First Nation, about 25 kilometres southwest of Chatham. “While it did not accomplish that, it has harmed our families and our community in incalculable ways."
Sampson's community says it will not observe Canada Day out of respect for former residential school students and survivors, including many in its band.
At Grand Bend, fireworks that typically draw hundreds each Canada Day won't take place this year due to the pandemic, said Mayor Bill Weber of Lambton Shores that includes the Lake Huron beach town. The discovery of unmarked graves at the former residential schools is another reason to pause this holiday, he said.
“We have a lot of great things that have happened in Canada and a lot to be grateful for, but we have a history that we need to acknowledge and understand better, to do better going forward," he said.
South Huron was one of the first communities in the region to cancel its plans out of respect for the Indigenous community.
“For us, it was a simple decision,” Mayor George Finch said. “It’s a time for reflection. We need to all do this as a part of healing for the entire country.”
The municipality, about 50 kilometres north of London, had no in-person festivities planned due to COVID, but cancelled its virtual celebrations after the Kamloops discovery.
In Sarnia, a Cancel Canada Day march honouring residential schools victims will take place at 10 a.m. Thursday at city hall. Another will be held that same hour in London's Victoria Park. The organizers of the Turtle Island healing walk are asking participants to wear orange “to recognize the impacts residential schools had on Indigenous people of Canada.”
Southwestern Ontario was home to two residential schools, the Mount Elgin Industrial School, near London on the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation, and the Mohawk Institute on the Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation, near Brantford.
RESIDENTIAL SCHOOL SURVIVORS:
Calvi Leon, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press