Oh Canada: Reflecting on Truth Telling and Reconciliation on July 1st

Canada Day marks the birth of the Canadian Confederation. As a rule, we’re thrilled with birthdays. Spending time with friends and family, BBQs, and of course cake, (we love cake at Three Things).   Generally, on this birthday, on July 1st, the cake is red and white, as are the mass number of maple leaves seen from coast to coast, and often comes with a side order of fireworks.  So much to celebrate. Oh Canada. 

If it was only that simple though.  While it’s a day when Canadians come together to commemorate their history, culture, and the values that define the country, in recent years, Canada Day has been accompanied by growing challenges and complex emotions. As the country grapples with issues of reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples and the re-evaluation of its colonial past, the celebration of Canada’s national day has become a profound and painful topic. Oh Canada.

On May 27th, 2021, powerful feelings of sorrow, hurt and loss were felt across the country with the discovery of 215 recovered children, coming from the preliminary findings from a survey of the grounds at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School where the remains of 215 children of Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation were buried at the site.  These innocent souls, long silenced by the passage of time, finally found their voices echoing through the layers of history. The spirits of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc children could finally find their way home.  Oh Canada.

As the truth of their existence came to light, a collective grief gripped the hearts of Canadians, confronting the painful legacy of residential schools and in 2021, Canada Day looked and felt very different.  For Indigenous Peoples, including our team, and in particular, young people we have supported, the grief was deeply felt and overwhelming.  While we heard through the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions process and reporting that they identified 3,200 children who never returned home, they also heard from survivors of so many more that were missing or died, none of whom made it home nor any records of their deaths.  Many, with lived experience anchored in trauma and hurt themselves bravely shared with the country about missing children and unmarked burials. In the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action, Calls 71 – 76 are focused on this. Not enough people heard them, not until May 2021.  Oh Canada.

Canada, both pre-confederation and post, is anchored in a history marred by the marginalization, violence, and attempted genocide of Indigenous Peoples. From the residential school system to the dispossession of land and cultural suppression, the legacy of colonization continues to cast a long shadow – with the effects of those actions continuing to effect in harmful ways, Indigenous Peoples today. Understandably, as awareness of this dark history grows, many Canadians are re-examining their national identity and questioning the appropriateness of celebrating a day that represents pain and injustice for Indigenous communities.  Oh Canada.

Reflecting on this historical context is crucial in understanding the challenges surrounding Canada Day and how will you, your family, community, organization, or business will recognize July 1st. Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples is an ongoing process, with no end date, that demands collective effort and commitment. As always, it is important to recognize there is no pan-Indigenous take or view on almost any subject, including Canada Day. For some Indigenous Peoples, a large component of reconciliation is cancelling Canada Day, (or that there is / nor can there ever be something called reconciliation), with that day being a painful reminder of the hurts caused due to colonization. Some see it as a celebration of the attempted genocide, loss of land and ongoing violence towards Indigenous Peoples. For some, there is no desire for further discussion on the topic of Canada Day. It is impossible to suggest that the anger carried by some is not justified and we need to listen to those voices, to hear deeply what they are experiencing each July 1st. That said, some believe, either in addition to holding similar views of those who want Canada Day cancelled, and / or that the day simply presents an opportunity for Canadians to reflect on the steps taken to date and assess the work that still lies ahead, both personally and as a country.  In 2021 there was a strong movement to do just that.  Yet since then, in two short years, what is the national mood as July 1st approaches?  We’ve seen, as each First Nations has reported back on their own search and recovery efforts that the number now surpasses 2000 unmarked graves having been discovered, yet the positioning of the story doesn’t appear to be front page worthy any longer. With dozens of Nations doing this painful yet critical work in a good and an honourable way with Ceremony and traditional approaches, that collective grief of Canadians has appeared to also dissipate.  What we are seeing is a collective feeling on Canada’s birthday this year: it’s time to celebrate again.  Even in Toronto, who in May announced the cancellation of Canada Day celebrations at Nathan Phillips Square, (which interestingly hadn’t had activities there since 2017), due to budget constraints, there were enough push back shared that the City reversed their decision.   Oh Canada.

We appreciate Canada Day allows Canadians to recognize the contributions Canada has made to their own family’s stories and the offerings to the world.   As we write this, we can’t help but reflect on a visit to Winnipeg’s North End last week where our team was privileged to bear witness to a group of students graduating high school, most who were Indigenous and newcomers to Canada.  The program that supported them along that path, is funded, in part, by the Government of Canada. The leadership and staff of that program includes strong Indigenous and newcomer role models and carers who have walked that important path with the students.  In addition, a hotel we often stay at in Winnipeg has served as a first stop for refugees fleeing Ukraine whose journey is supported by the Government of Canada. In these moments, and others like it, we are proud of the commitments made by this country, though over time we have learned, like many relationships, we can be both appreciative and disappointed, often at the same time.  Canada Day is complex for many of us.  Oh Canada.

By actively engaging in conversations and initiatives aimed at truth telling, healing, and the restoration of Indigenous rights, Canadians can begin to foster a sense of unity and inclusivity. July 1st is an opportunity for redefining celebration. In recent years, some individuals and communities have chosen to approach Canada Day differently, aiming to transform it into a day of reflection and education rather than pure celebration. This shift acknowledges the need to address the country’s historical and ongoing injustices and invites Canadians to confront uncomfortable truths. Reimagining Canada Day as a space for dialogue, awareness, and learning allows us to work towards building a more just and equitable society.  July 1st creates space for honouring of the diverse cultures, traditions, and contributions of Indigenous Peoples and communities in the development and ongoing richness of this country, while acknowledging the injustices that have, and remain for First Nations, Métis, and Inuit. It is essential for Canadians to actively read, watch and listen to the voices of Indigenous Peoples and learn more about our experiences and practice self-reflection – which for any of us, in any situation, is a difficult task.  The question is, will Canadians, systems and organizations take time on that day to do that important work – that heavy lifting that is necessary?  Will they create meaningful dialogue and open conversations that will play a vital role in addressing the challenges surrounding the history, the present and the future of Canada and its relationship with Indigenous Peoples.  Oh Canada. 

The challenge we put to Canadians on July 1st lies in embracing its potential as a catalyst for change, calls for introspection, reflection, and action. As we navigate the complexities of Canada’s history, it is crucial to approach this day with empathy, open-mindedness, and a willingness to confront uncomfortable truths. By acknowledging the past, engaging in reconciliation efforts, redefining celebration, and fostering dialogue, Canadians can work together towards a future where all individuals are treated with dignity and respect, where sacred Treaties are honoured, and the land is cared for.  This requires a commitment to dismantling systemic barriers, promoting cultural understanding, and supporting Indigenous-led initiatives.  Oh Canada.

Amidst the complexities, there have emerged spaces working with resolve to acknowledge, heal, and seek justice for the land and the First Peoples. These spaces are responding to calls to action and are bringing people who together are walking a path towards reconciliation that takes on renewed urgency, as a nation grapples with the weight of its past, striving to build a future where all children can flourish, protected and cherished.  If you are in or near Kingston on July 1st, consider joining us at the Circle below, where we have been gathering collectively on the land to share, care and heal together for more than 5 years on this day.  If these spaces become a larger anchor of the day, instead of fireworks and flag waving, that would be worthy of Oh Canada.

This is a powerful example of how Canadians responded and processed their emotions in 2021. Jordan Hart, a singer / songwriter shared the first verse in June 2021, following it up in 2022 with verse two…and will soon release the full song, created in collaboration with Indigenous artists. You can find his music on Apple, Spotify and YouTube.