Should we cancel Canada Day?

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Content warning: Today’s newsletter deals with residential schools and genocide


Looking forward to summer is like TGIF on steroids. I can’t wait to shut down my desk and have long, lazy days outside.

But there’s one big date before we get into summer mode: Canada Day. 

July 1 is a stat holiday and I’m looking forward to a summer long weekend — which we all need after a long year of pandemic school and work. So I have no problem with July 1, per se. As long as it isn’t about celebrating Canada this year.

In May, it was announced that 215 unmarked graves were found at Kamloops residential school. Unmarked graves of children have continued to be found at former residential school sites. This week, Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan found 751 unmarked graves at the former site of Marieval Indian Residential School.


Victoria, B.C. canceled their Canada Day celebrations upon the discovery of the 215 unmarked graves of children at Kamloops residential school. City council voted unanimously to do so.

Now, many cities and towns are canceling their celebrations and Conservative party leader Erin O’Toole is decrying that choice.1

Here’s the deal: It isn’t about canceling Canada. It’s about canceling the celebration. I can’t think of a more straightforward and appropriate response to the ongoing discovery of incontrovertible proof of genocide in Canada.

On the day that news broke about the Kamloops residential school unmarked graves, I was scheduled to speak at a citizenship ceremony. I’d been asked to give a short speech to 41 people who were taking their oath of citizenship, a final ritual in the long process to becoming Canadian.

It was on Zoom, presided over by a judge. The ceremony began with smudging and a speech by former Chief and elder Myeengun Henry of Deshkan Ziibiing (Chippewas of the Thames) First Nation.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the speech I gave that day.

I wasn’t sure what to say as I prepared, even before the news of Kamloops, because I’m not about blind nationalism. And yet I do feel, especially having traveled extensively, that Canada has given me, a Canadian-born citizen and settler immigrant, a golden ticket in life. 

There are the small things (there is truly no city on Earth with such amazing range of incredible food as Toronto) and the big things, too -- I’ve always had access to education, clean water, and materials in my own language (even as a small child in the 80s, there was a whole Korean section at our neighbourhood library that my mom would lose herself in every time we visited).

These things didn’t exist in some places I visited as a traveler. In East Timor, I remember being stunned by the lack of resources in the people’s own language, a legacy of colonialism. In Mali, I watched a farmer water his entire field by hand, with a calabash -- no irrigation. I passed through many villages that lacked schools (and it’s not about buildings -- it’s about much bigger social issues in order for families to feel safe sending their kids to school).

But does this sound familiar? Turns out I didn’t need to travel far afield to have my eyes opened to extreme inequities. All these years here in Canada, I wasn’t seeing the truth. The lack of clean drinking water, lack of educational opportunities, the theft of language and culture. Colonial violence. Genocide.

Having visited far-flung places is also why learning about colonialism and genocide at home is crushing -- because I can clearly see how much I’ve benefited from my place in our society. Canada has been good -- to me. 

So, in writing my speech for the citizenship ceremony, I made it hyper-personal and spoke as a child of immigrants.

My parents came here from Seoul, Korea in the mid-1970s. My mom brought $300 and all her party dresses. They could have used more money and they didn’t end up needing the fancy clothes. 

In Canada, there’s the dream and there’s the reality. Growing up in our home, we lived with both. And it wasn’t always easy.

I kept the focus on home.

I know the secret to Canada’s success and it is families. When families are supported, communities thrive. And where Canada has forcibly broken up families, such as with residential schools, it’s our greatest shame. 

By focusing on what it was like growing up in my own home, I could mention the pressure I felt to succeed, the strongly-held belief that our generation could improve upon a previous generation’s circumstances.

Today, I thrive in a career as a journalist. A big part of how I see my job is to create a better, fuller picture of our shared Canadian history and to recognize that history is ongoing. Today, through my work, that’s how I live out my responsibility to society. 

I believe in change and in Canada’s ability to be better. 

When you love something or someone, you want them to reach their potential. 

I learned this lesson at home.

In our immigrant household, you better believe I learned about high expectations. So guess what? I have high expectations for Canada, too. 

Canadians haven’t acknowledged the full truth. Indigenous communities have been waiting for the rest of us to catch up.

I believe that a country that has been good to many of us can be better for all of us. 

How?

The only people I want to hear from on the topic of how are Indigenous leaders. Such as Mi’kmaq lawyer, professor and activist Pam Palmater,2 Sipekne’katik First Nation Chief Mike Sack,3 MP Jody Wilson-Raybould and elder Myeengun Henry,4 who addressed the citizenship ceremony that morning in May.

If Myeengun Henry can continually speak up for Indigenous treaty rights5 while working with Canada (there’s nothing more “Canadian” than a citizenship ceremony) then the least settler Canadians can do, literally the very least, is to not hold celebrations during a time of immense grief.

Fixing what’s broken isn’t the time for a party. You wouldn’t do that with your own home. So I don’t think we should do that on a larger level, either. 

However, I do hope to feel happiness, comfort, and relief with my own family on July 1. Which is a precious feeling I wish every household could have, in every corner of this country.

Thank you for reading,

Hannah

✨✨✨ This newsletter was edited by Laura Hensley ✨✨✨

Processing these news stories is difficult. Support for survivors and families is available. The National Indian Residential School Crisis Hotline can be reached at 1-866-925-4419. Wellness Together Canada can be accessed online or by texting WELLNESS to 741741.

Further Reading

Religious group will release records from Marievel, Kamloops residential schools, The Canadian Press

Victoria cancels Canada Day celebrations as Mayor says they would be damaging to reconciliation efforts, The Globe and Mail. “We’re using our leadership to be more focused on reflection and less on celebration,” she said in an interview. “You can feel free to celebrate, but, as a city, we have a responsibility to show leadership.”

Crown-Indigenous Minister Carolyn Bennett apologizes for message that MP Jody Wilson-Raybould calls ‘racist’ and misogynistic, Toronto Star

I can no longer celebrate Canada Day, Toronto Star

5

End the legacy of residential schools: Honour the treaties, Spring magazine. Elder Myeengun Henry on how honouring treaties would alleviate poverty in Indigenous communities.


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