Why some Sask. people aren't celebrating Canada on July 1

·5 min read
Last year, a gathering meant to commemorate children who died while attending residential schools across Canada was held in Saskatoon's Kiwanis Park on July 1. The meaning will carry forward to this year's July 1 gathering.  (Dayne Patterson/CBC - image credit)
Last year, a gathering meant to commemorate children who died while attending residential schools across Canada was held in Saskatoon's Kiwanis Park on July 1. The meaning will carry forward to this year's July 1 gathering. (Dayne Patterson/CBC - image credit)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details

Some people in Saskatchewan are changing the way that they mark July 1, with the emphasis shifting from an uncritical celebration of Canada to an opportunity for reflection, truth and reconciliation.

"Canada Day celebrates 155 years of genocide and colonial violence," said Ezra Forest (they/them). The Cree 24-year-old, from Treaty 6 territory, has helped organize a Cancel Canada Day gathering happening Friday in Saskatoon.

"This is really important to cancel, because there are those before us and those after us who need to be honoured and respected in the indigenous communities," said Forest, who is the Wâpahki program co-ordinator with Chokecherry studios, a Saskatoon non-profit offering arts-based programming and mentorship to young artists in inner-city Saskatoon.

"We are doing this for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, two-spirit, and also for those affected by the residential schools."

Kendall Latimer/CBC
Kendall Latimer/CBC

Saskatchewan poet laureate Carol Rose GoldenEagle said she felt tremendously conflicted about participating in Canada Day celebrations.

These feelings swelled about a year ago, after Cowessess First Nation Chief Cadmus Delorme announced to the world that radar technology had identified 751 potential unmarked graves at the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School, about 140 kilometres east of Regina.

"I was so hurt, heartbroken by the news, and all of the subsequent tally of children who never made it home, that I just said to myself I can't celebrate Canada Day," GoldenEagle said. "I decided I wasn't boycotting Canada, but I was making a statement about the dark history of the treatment of Indigenous people in this country."

Matt Howard/CBC Sask
Matt Howard/CBC Sask

But then the Last Mountain Lake Cultural Centre approached her and asked to participate with their float. As she pondered the question, she acknowledged the centre does a lot of work toward reconciliation and felt it made sense to try to move forward with art and culture.

"I think everyone needs to be mindful of what happened, and say okay you know what I am somehow going to mark the day, because I think it's important for us to celebrate but also reflect and acknowledge," she said.

"We need to honour those children and then move forward so that this type of crime never happens again in this country."

From rah-rah to reflection 

For decades, the public's approach to Canada Day celebrations was relatively consistent, said Raymond Blake, a professor in the department of history at University of Regina. His recent research has explored identity, citizenship and how these notions have changed in recent decades.

"It was our sort of rah-rah day, let's get out and let's celebrate one of the best nations in the world, and what we've accomplished as a people."

However, Blake said the uncritical enthusiasm noticeably began to waver about five to seven years ago as the 150th anniversary of confederation neared.

Spiritual pain, collective trauma is definitely hard to live with, but what's harder to live with is for it to go unnoticed and unaddressed.  - Ezra Forest

Blake said this shift accompanied the growing social awareness about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's (TRC) findings.

Many of the children at residential schools were physically, sexually or psychologically abused in a system described by the TRC in its 2015 report as cultural genocide, part of a collective, calculated effort to eradicate Indigenous language and culture.

Social awareness expanded last year, as unmarked graves at Canadian residential schools came under international scrutiny. Hundreds of potential burial sites have since been identified and searches are underway at sites across Canada.

Kendall Latimer/CBC
Kendall Latimer/CBC

Blake said public polling in 2021 showed that many people in Canada still wanted to celebrate or mark July 1 in some way, but there's a growing desire to go beyond a firework fuelled celebration.

"The vast majority of Canadians are quite content to celebrate Canada Day, but that doesn't mean we sweep under the rug, so to speak, the parts of the history that we have to acknowledge," he said. "The brutality of the state was something that is simply unforgivable."

'Want to stand together'

The Cancel Canada Day gathering in Saskatoon begins at 3 p.m. CST Friday in Kiwanis Memorial Park. It will start off with an opening prayer and then feature a series of talks, a smudge walk, a community art installation and a round dance.

Forest said preparing for the July 1 event has been hard and emotional, but worth it.

"Spiritual pain, collective trauma is definitely hard to live with, but what's harder to live with is for it to go unnoticed and unaddressed."

Forest said they hope the Cancel Canada Day action inspires more people to join in solidarity next July 1, with a clearer understanding of what Canada was built upon and the want to work for a better future.

They said Friday's event is open to all.

"By coming, you're an ally. You're amplifying our voices. We want to stand together on Cancel Canada Day as a collective."

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 former students 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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