Now that Canada’s historical genocide of its Indigenous peoples is out in the open, there are calls to cancel its national day celebrations, Canada Day. Following the discovery of a mass grave at the Kamloops Indian Residential School earlier this month, nearly 1,000 additional unmarked graves holding the remains of Indigenous children have been found at other residential school sites—and the number continues to rise. It is believed that more than 150,000 children from the First Nations, Métis and Inuit were stolen from their communities and forced into residential schools. The real figure of how many were lost is still unknown.
Children were numbered, forced into Christianity and were only permitted to speak English. Their hair was often shaved thousands experienced neglect and the most horrific acts of physical and sexual abuse. While producing Canada’s Keepers, my own documentary which focuses on the country’s hidden atrocities committed against Indigenous peoples, I had the chance to meet Zephiria Joseph, an incredible elder and residential school survivor.
“When [I went] back to the school and [told] the mother superior what [the priest] did she said ‘You’re just lying because you wanna go home’. They just called me a liar and punished me.” Sadly, Joseph’s experience is a shared one, with most children, if not all, experiencing sexual abuse at the hands of the religious leaders running the schools. Joseph and her daughter are pictured above.
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The Catholic Church, which founded and ran these schools for most of their existence, (with the last school only closing in 1996) have failed to even acknowledge the crimes they committed—with ongoing reports of priests’ statues being defaced and more churches burned.
Canada Day falls on 1 July—today’s date. This year will mark 154 years since 1 July 1867, when three British colonies were joined together to form Canada. Following the recent discoveries and tremendous grief and trauma being felt, Indigenous communities have urged for the cancellation of any celebrations being held; rather than a day of blind nationalistic partying, they are asking for it to be a day of reflection—an acknowledgement of Canada’s real history and the Indigenous people’s lost one.
Sol Mamakwa, Member of Provincial Parliament, Kiiwetinoong and Official Opposition Critic for Indigenous & Treaty Relations, took to Twitter to say, “As we continue to see our stolen children’s remains uncovered across the country. There is no hiding that the church and state committed genocide. And we continue to suffer.” Mamakwa went on to say why Canada Day should not be celebrated this year, “The proof is before your very eyes. You cannot look away. We cannot begin to move forward in a good way until the truth is accepted, until there is accountability. […] This year Canada Day should be nothing more than a day of reflection. I will not celebrate the birth of a nation that destroyed our children.”
These same calls have been echoed across social media under #CancelCanadaDay with a number of rallies being organised in the areas of Ontario, Alberta and Columbia, to name a few. Alongside this is a call to wear orange instead of the Canadian colours of red and white. Wearing the colour orange for Canada Day originated from residential school survivor Phyllis Jack Webstad’s Orange Day. Webstad revealed her own past, recounting how at six years old she was forced into residential schooling. Her clothes were taken from her, including a beloved orange shirt gifted to her by her grandmother, which she never saw again. The orange has now become a symbolic colour that represents the theft of residential school children and their identities.
And of course, the conservative white guys had to come crying “cancel culture” as Pam Palmater, award-winning Professor and Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University, clarified on Twitter. She writes that “cancel culture” is a “dog whistle term used by angry white men who benefit from the status quo.” And that “cancelling Canada Day is a move toward truth, justice and reconciliation.” It is honestly unbelievable that mourning the children lost to genocide is being dubbed “cancel culture.”
It’s time for non-Indigenous Canadians to put their misplaced pride aside and understand the dark roots of Canadian history. One Twitter user put it perfectly, “If you knew that your neighbours were having a funeral for their children who were abducted and murdered, would you throw a big party and shoot off fireworks in your backyard to celebrate the abductors’ birthday?”
This can’t be just isolated today. It has to continue. The process of decolonisation only begins here. The Indigenous peoples of Canada must be mourned, respected, listened to and actually heard. #CancelCanadaDay
Hundreds of mourners and protestors gathered in Toronto on 6 June to lead a peaceful event, titled ‘Bring Our Children Home’, to honour the lives of the Indigenous children found buried in an unmarked mass grave. The mass grave was found at the ‘Kamloops Indian Residential School’ located in British Columbia, Canada. The burial held the remains of an estimated 215 Indigenous children, with some as young as three years old. The former residential school was eventually closed in 1978. It was founded in 1890 and run by the Catholic Church up until 1969, where it was then taken over by the Canadian Federal Government.
This unthinkable loss broke the hearts of Indigenous peoples in Canada but it did not shock them like it shocked the world. This is not an ‘untold story’. It’s been told by Indigenous peoples throughout history, you just haven’t been listening. It’s time to.
In a documentary, I produced last year, titled Canada’s Keepers, I had the honour and privilege to interview the most enigmatic, powerful and beautiful Indigenous women about this history, and their present-day experience as Native women in Canada. The highest honour was interviewing Indigenous elder and residential school survivor Zephiria Joseph (photographed above). I will be using the testimonies of Joseph alongside Rose Trimbell’s (her daughter), Robyn Lawson’s and Cynthia Taha’s to break down what you need to know from the people you should hear it from. We have delayed the release of the documentary due to this heart-breaking news and to respect the lives lost.
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The first Canadian residential school opened in 1831 and what followed devastated the Indigenous peoples of the land for generations. The creation of the ‘Indian Act’ in 1871 was to “kill the Indian in the child.” Lawson told me, “The Indian Act was created for one purpose only and that was to kill the Indians. It was to get the Indians out of their way and in support of their, we’ll call it industrious leanings—on our side, I call it rapacious plundering.” Taha, a registered nurse, explained to me that “the government […] took several of our people by force and put them onto reservations and they were given numbers, they were registered according to these numbers. The Indian agents, so to speak, also took children and [put] them [in] residential schools.”
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It is believed that more than 150,000 children from the First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities were stolen from their families and forced into residential schools. Some say that around 4,000 never returned home—the real figure is thought to be terrifyingly higher. “I was one of those kids,” Joseph told me.
“We could not speak our language. We had to talk [in] English. We get caught talking Native, we were punished for it. They didn’t prepare you for work or anything, they just [taught] you how to act like white people. Talk like white people […] How am I gonna be white when I’m brown? What do you wanna do about that?” Joseph said firmly. It gets even worse.
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Joseph shared with me that she was sexually assaulted by a priest at the school—most of the children were. “When [I went] back to the school and [told] the mother superior what he did she said ‘You’re just lying because you wanna go home’. They just called me a liar and punished me.” You couldn’t believe it gets worse but it does. The last residential school didn’t close until 1996. That’s just my lifetime ago. Trimbell, Joseph’s daughter and a licensed counsellor, had this to say, “They wanted to ‘kill the Indian in the Indian’ and they left an empty shell of people who hated themselves, hated their culture, the colour of their skin—they were completely lost.”
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a statement regarding the monumental discovery in Kamloops, to the House of Commons on 1 June, “Today, some of the children found in Kamloops, and who have yet to be found in other places across the country, would have been grandparents or great-grandparents. They would have been elders, knowledge keepers and community leaders.” He continued, “They are not. And that is the fault of Canada.” He has also pledged $33 million dollars for the further investigation of other residential schools. Let’s hold out celebrations until we see some actual action.
Trudeau has also called on Pope Francis to issue a formal apology for the part the Catholic Church played in the Canadian residential school system. Trudeau, on a trip to the Vatican in 2017, had asked Pope Francis for an apology at the time, for the “spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical and sexual abuse” of Indigenous children. The Pope, to this date, has never issued an official apology. Without an actual apology, there is no real accountability from the Catholic Church. Although Trudeau making these demands appears to be well-meaning, he is no saint—in fact, he is the worst.
Andrew Mitrovica, a Toronto-based writer, wrote in an article for Al-Jazeera that “it is necessary to deconstruct Trudeau’s astonishingly trite tweet to reveal not only its signature glibness but also this prime minister’s rank, disingenuous nature and historical illiteracy.” We don’t want empty words. What about the thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) you have failed to do anything about, Prime Minister Trudeau? What about the Indigenous still being taken from their families and forced into foster care? What about your broken promise to not go through with the Trans Mountain oil pipeline project that would destroy Squamish territory? And across the Atlantic, what about the UK actually coming to terms with its colonial history and present? What about some actual reparations?