As Canada Day has come and gone for another year, unfortunately the debate over whether to celebrate the birth of this nation has not.
As of press time, the remains of 1,287 people have been discovered in unmarked burials from five former residential school sites in Canada. As of now, 135 more locations need to searched, including one in Nova Scotia.
The Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw Chiefs gathered to listen to the announcement from the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan, and said their hearts ache for their Indigenous sisters and brothers and for all residential school survivors across the country. The assembly called the news “difficult” but “not surprising,”
The discovery of 751 unmarked burials at the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan adds to the already discovered 215 remains at the site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School in Kamloops, British Columbia, 104 discovered at the Brandon Indian Residential School in Brandon, Manitoba, and 35 at the Muscowequan Indian Residential School near Lestock, Saskatchewan.
On June 30, the community of ʔaq’am, one of four bands in the Ktunaxa Nation near the city of Cranbrook, B.C., used ground-penetrating radar to search a site close to the former St. Eugene’s Mission School and said 182 unmarked grave sites were discovered.
St. Eugene’s Mission School was operated by the Catholic Church from 1912 until the early 1970s. The Lower Kootenay Band said up to 100 of its members were forced to attend the school.
In a Facebook post on June 24, We’koqma’q First Nation said these are not just numbers, they are people, noting “Our hearts are deeply saddened and with the families of Cowessess First Nation, and all Indigenous communities across Canada, especially our Mi’kmaw friends and family.”
Mi’kmaq artist Whitney Gould of We’koqma’q created a piece entitled “They found us…” which shows the silhouette of a young person with shoulder-length hair whispering into the ear of another child with two long braids that fall down their back, smoke clouds float over their heads, as an eagle soars through the red-yellow sky.
“Our hearts are heavy on hearing of yet more discoveries in Saskatchewan. Sadly, we know this is not the end,” Gould said. “Somehow, we must find a way to begin again and do better. Only love will guide us through this time.”
With reaction continuing to pour in from First Nation communities and Indigenous Canadians from coast-to-coast-to-coast, there was reaction from others.
With strong ties to their neighbours in Paqtnkek Mi’kmaw Nation, StFX University president Andy Hakin said he was struggling to articulate the feelings and emotions he had concerning news about the discovery of 751 unmarked burials.
In light of the discoveries, Indigenous people across the country called on villages, towns, and cities to scale back or cancel Canada Day celebrations as the nation “was built on genocide” and they continue to grieve, what will amount to thousands of children who never came home from residential schools.
Richmond Warden Amanda Mombourquette said she had “an initial conversation” with Potlotek Chief Wilburt Marshall where they discussed a land recognition statement, the National Day of Mourning, the Truth and Reconciliation process, and a possible presentation to council by Potlotek First Nation officials.
While they didn’t get into further details, the warden said Potlotek Band Council met on June 29 to discuss the items that arose during her conversation with Marshall.
Mombourquette said the municipality did not host any Canada Day events and has sought Marshall’s guidance on this issue.
The Town of Mulgrave also decided to cancel its Canada Day festivities for a Day of Reflection, while in the Town of Port Hawkesbury, they designated July 1 as a Day of Reflection to support Unama’ki (Cape Breton) and Mi’kma’ki (Unceded territory of the Mi’kmaw) communities.
On June 15, at a special public meeting, council approved the installation of a fourth flag pole for the sole purpose of flying the Mi’kmaq flag permanently in Port Hawkesbury as a way to honour International Indigenous Peoples Day and the Mi’kmaq Nation.
In a subsequent emergency meeting on June 27, council met to discuss how best to proceed with their Canada Day plans.
Council passed a motion to cancel all Canada Day activities and to invite citizens of the town to observe a Day of Reflection. Mayor Brenda Chisholm-Beaton said her heart goes out to Indigenous people all across the country and especially in Mi’kma’ki.
Additionally, council approved that the Mi’kmaq flag be raised first thing in the morning on June 28, and that all flags to be lowered to half-mast until the last day of July to honour the memories of all Indigenous children and adults buried in mass unmarked graves.
The mayor said she reached out to friends and community leaders in Unama’ki communities for feedback about how Port Hawkesbury can support and acknowledge First Nation communities.
She vowed to continue to work with neighbouring First Nation Mi’kmaq communities, is planning to host a ceremony in Port Hawkesbury this summer to provide an opportunity to listen, learn, and reach a better understanding about the impact of residential schools. She said the aim is also to honour the memory of residential school victims, and come together to learn from residential school survivors and elders.
The mayor said another recommendation was to host a Blanket Exercise, which is an impactful educational tool allowing participants to learn about the history of First Nations people and engage on emotional and intellectual levels, with First Nation facilitators and guides.
While some residents of the Strait area support these types of action, there are others who wanted to celebrate Canada Day in the traditional way, after months of isolation, worry, and bad news.
While most of these people agree that the recent discoveries are nothing short of horrific, they believe Canada Day could have been celebrated, in some form, this year.
Some residents, and elected officials noted that many people become official Canadian citizens on Canada Day, and that should be celebrated, others wanted to host Canada Day events, while paying respect to the recent discoveries, and acknowledging this country’s genocidal past.
But in reality, with some public health restrictions still in effect – and given the rawness from those discoveries – 2021 is not the year to be celebrating anything.
Other than the discovery of vaccines, there is very little to celebrate.
Many people have become sick and died over the past 17 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, many others have lost their jobs, their homes, their businesses and their families due to the resulting economic downturn.
Add to this the fact that more than 1,100 human remains have been unearthed, and the fact that more will be found, the decision whether to proceed with Canada Day this year was a no-brainer.
This doesn’t mean that Canada Day can’t be celebrated in 2022, and in the years after; but this year, at this time, after all the turmoil, this is a time for reflection and learning.