Unhappy Canada Day

1 July 2021 – This is surely the unhappiest Canada Day in our history. Yet if we seize the opportunity, it may also be the most important, and make the greatest contribution to the future of everyone who lives here.

Although we begin to emerge from COVID, with most jurisdictions in their final re-opening stages, we are not celebrating.

Across the country, events have been muted, changed, postponed or cancelled. The country’s flag continues to fly at half-mast — everywhere, at every level and in every circumstance, from the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill to this local flagpole outside a False Creek condominium.

The national mood ranges from shock to rage to bewilderment to shame to — oh yes, this as well — scape-goating.  But with enough reflection and recognition in the mixture, we may yet be grateful for this sombre day.

The Immediate Shock: +1,100 bodies in unmarked graves

Within the last month, most recently yesterday, three different First Nations have announced that the use of ground-penetrating radar has detected the presence of children’s bodies in unmarked, unacknowledged graves at the sites of three now-closed Indian Residential Schools. The numbers now total more than 1,100.

I have to repeat this slowly to myself, to take it in. More than 1,100 indigenous children, removed by force from their families, dead while in the hands of the religious authorities charged with their care, and then simply … disposed of. Not even honoured with hallowed, marked graves, let alone returned to their families with a full accounting.

The Barest-Bones Background

Right from first contact, religious and political authorities assumed their right — their duty — to convert the indigenous peoples. The first residential facilities were established in Nouvelle France, but the term Residential School generally applies to the system established after 1880. Some 150,000 indigenous children were forcibly taken to 139 Indian Residential Schools across the country; most schools were closed by the mid-1970s, but the last did not close until 1990. It was thought that an estimated 6,000 children died while at school — a number we shall clearly need to revise.

“Residential schools,” says The Canadian Encyclopedia in an entry last edited June 2021, “were government-sponsored religious schools that were established to assimilate indigenous children into Euro-Canadian culture.” In developing the system, our Prime Minister John A. Macdonald commissioned journalist/politician Nicholas Flood Davin to study the American model. Davin recommended that Canada follow the U.S. example of “aggressive civilization” of the children.

And that’s what we did. The founder of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania said, “Kill the Indian and save the man”; our Prime Minister said, “Take the Indian out of the child.”

Today we officially — as recommended by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada — describe this as “cultural genocide.”

We don’t yet know whether any other definition of genocide also applies.

Reaction / Response

There are the easy reactions, all the way from smooth words to angry gestures (e.g. toppled statues). But none of that changes reality. What happened, happened. We cannot change past events. We can only change how we view those events, and what we now do about them.

Indigenous and other leaders have made statements, this Canada Day. For example:

  • Perry Bellegarde, Chief, Assembly of First Nations – “…I urge everyone to reflect on the darkness of the past and commit to doing better as a country. Every single Canadian and government has a role to play and we must all work together…  We cannot lose the momentum. We must continue to see action for transformational change…”
  • Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada – “… We as Canadians must be honest with ourselves about our history… The truth is, we’ve got a long way to go to make things right with Indigenous peoples, but if we all pledged ourselves to doing the work, we can achieve reconciliation…”
  • Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault – “Our history has been stained with painful atrocities and too many people continue to face racism, violence and hatred every day. Working towards building a Canada in which everyone has every opportunity to flourish requires active listening, acknowledgment and collective action…”
  • Cindy Blackstock, Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society – “…We do need to learn from the history, but we need to understand that the injustice is not over… And therein lies the opportunity for every Canadian to demand from the government, to demand from the churches, and to demand from ourselves the full implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls to action…”
  • Roseanne Casimir, Chief, Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation Kukpi7 – “…Our hearts go out to the communities who have recently confirmed unmarked grave sites and missing children on the grounds of other residential sites. We stand with you in this harsh truth which is part of the history we need all Canadians to acknowledge… The best way to honour our country, and the diversity of its citizens, and, in particular this year our future generations, is to understand our real collective history… And it is not just First Nations that face the ugly face of racism… Canada is about diversity. We should be standing together in solidarity, regardless of our background…”
  • Marco Mendicino, Minister, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship – “…It’s often said that Canada is an unfinished project that every generation of Canadians shapes anew…”

And Now?

The Government of Canada will fund up to $27 m. to support Indigenous partners and communities in a range of activities, including school-specific research into the children who died at residential schools and their burial sites.

The Roman Catholic Church in Canada (responsible for most but not all of the residential schools, and responsible for all three schools where unmarked grave sites have so far been identified) has pledged neither funds nor action. The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops — while pointing out that each Roman Catholic diocese and community is corporately and legally responsible for its own actions — has expressed “deepest sorrow for the heart-rending loss of children.” Pope Francis has agreed to meet with a delegation of First Nations, Métis and Inuit, though not until mid-December.

Ultimately, I believe, it is up to every resident of this country to take responsibility for the future of this country: not to cancel anything, but to recognize everything, including the realities we each find most unpalatable — and then to act, and to demand action, to build on that recognition.

My final quotation is not fresh from today’s news. It is 106 years old, the words of Lt-Col John McCrae, the Canadian doctor who served as Medical Officer with the 1st Brigade, Canadian Field Artillery, in World War I. 

McCrae is better known as the author of In Flanders Fields, which he wrote during the sustained carnage of the 2nd Battle of Ypres (22 April – 25 May, 1915). The poem is all about the dead, honouring the dead. “If ye break faith with us who die,” he wrote, “we shall not sleep…”

Let us keep faith with our dead, and — through the actions we take and the changes we make — honour them, and the country, and the future of everyone in it. 

We all deserve to sleep acknowledged, respected, and safe.

My Sources and Some Other Links

History of Residential Schools

The Unmarked Graves

Canada Day Statements

The Roman Catholic Church

and finally..

Guideposts to the Future?

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission / National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation


    "Traveller, there is no path. Paths are made by walking" -- Antonio Machado (1875-1939)

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