'No reason to celebrate': Canada Day muted as country reckons with dark colonial past

Prime Minister Trudeau calls on Canadians to 'reflect on our country's historical failures'

Multiple cities across Canada scrapped national day celebrations on Thursday after the discovery of hundreds of remains of children in unmarked graves at former indigenous schools sparked a reckoning with the country's colonial past.

Calls to scale back or cancel Canada Day celebrations snowballed after, beginning in May, almost 1,000 unmarked graves were found at former residential schools in British Columbia and Saskatchewan that were mainly run by the Catholic Church and funded by the government.

Traditionally, the holiday is celebrated with backyard barbecues and fireworks much like July 4 in the US, however this year Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the day would be “a time for reflection".

A #CancelCanadaDay march was being held in Ottawa, the capital, and Toronto was hosting rallies to honour the victims and survivors of Canada's residential school system. The schools forcibly separated indigenous children from their families, in what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called “cultural genocide” in 2015.

“Canada is having a reckoning with its history,” said Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, a University of Toronto sociology professor who studies race, crime and criminal justice.

“I don't think we can celebrate this country for what it is without recognising this country for what it isn't: a utopia and a bastion of equality and freedom and equal opportunity for all members of society,” he said.

Across the country, people dressed in orange T-shirts, which have become a symbol to remember the children that perished in the country's residential school system.

Canada's reputation for tolerance was built on its efforts, starting in the 1970s, to create a multicultural society, but inequalities abound both for indigenous communities and among visible minorities, data show.

In his Canada Day message on Thursday, Mr Trudeau said the discovery of the remains of hundreds of children at former residential schools “have rightfully pressed us to reflect on our country's historical failures” and the injustices that still exist for indigenous peoples and many others in Canada.

“This Canada Day, let's recommit to learning from and listening to each other so we can break down the barriers that divide us, rectify the injustices of our past and build a more fair and equitable society for everyone.”

Stark Disparities

Indigenous people, who make up less than 5 per cent of the population, face higher levels of poverty and violence as well as shorter life expectancies.

The unemployment rate for visible minorities, who make up more than 20 per cent of the total population, was 11.4 per cent in May compared with 7 per cent for whites, according to Statistics Canada.

In 2020, the unemployment rate for indigenous people in Ontario was 12.5 per cent compared with 9.5 per cent for non-indigenous people.

Some 30 per cent of visible minorities and indigenous peoples feel they are treated like outsiders in their own country, an showed Angus Reid Institute poll on diversity and racism published on June 21.

The discovery of the remains and a deadly attack on a Muslim family in June has led to soul-searching in Canada about the country's oft-touted reputation for tolerance.

The man accused in the attack has been charged with murder and domestic terrorism. Hate crimes against Muslims rose 9 per cent to 181 in 2019, according to the latest data by StatCan. Some 36 per cent of indigenous people and 42 per cent of visible minorities said Canada is a racist country, the Angus Reid survey showed.

A number of Muslim women who wear hijabs have also been attacked in Alberta in recent weeks, while in Quebec, a law banning public servants from wearing the hijab is facing legal challenges, with critics calling the measure a form of institutionalised racism.

New Democrat member of Parliament, Mumilaaq Qaqqaq, who is Inuk, said she felt unsafe in the House of Commons as an indigenous woman, and last month announced she would not be running for re-election.

“I don't think there's any reason for celebration [on Canada Day]," Ms Qaqqaq said.

Updated: July 1st 2021, 10:02 PM