The Complicated Past, Present & Future of Canada Day

In recent years, the shouts of Canada’s Indigenous peoples regarding the celebration of Canada Day and what it represents, have finally begun to be heard by the general public. As such, this article will be looking into the issues of residential schools (both the history and what has occurred recently in the news), topics of reconciliation, and some insight into what our followers think regarding Canada Day. Due to the importance of this topic, Thomas Tinmouth, Saige Friedman and Raquel Margulies have all contributed to this article.

Topics of Reconciliation

In Canada, reconciliation is an exceptionally important term to many people, with many far-reaching implications. To some, it may equate to recognition, while to others, it may conjure thoughts of harmony between Indigenous peoples and the Canadian government. The long, complicated, and violent history between the two groups, has created the need for reconciliation in Canada—something that is desired by Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples alike. The term has come to describe efforts made by both individuals and institutions to raise awareness about colonization and its continued impact on Indigenous peoples in this country. Reconciliation is also closely linked to the efforts made in addressing the tragedies that have occurred and continue to impact Indigenous peoples with residential schools.

Some feel that the word is a representation of the opportunity we have as Canadians to reflect on and understand the past, in order to move forward, heal, and do our best to make things right. However, others feel that the current gestures of reconciliation have been purely performative and do not actually include any meaningful action to address the trauma and hardship inflicted by colonization. In order to better understand reconciliation and our government’s efforts to date, we will first have to go back to 1876.

The Indian Act

In 1876, the Canadian government established the Indian Act, an Act which brought with it the installation of reservations, and countless discriminatory and restrictive provisions. The contents of the Act outline how reserves and bands can operate, how they can be created and defines who is and who is not to be recognized as “Indian”. Throughout Canada’s history, this status has created many problems among various communities, as the government provided (and continues to provide) those with “Indian status” certain benefits, and those without status, nothing.

Other provisions in the Act applied restrictions to Indigenous lands, women, assets, trade and overall freedoms. Since 1876, the Indian Act has continued to be a prevalent and contentious document in Canadian law. While this Act and the reservation system have been in place for a century, many still feel wronged by the government for the establishment of the system and its continued existence.

While reserves may serve as spiritual and physical homelands to some communities, they are still seen by many as tangible reminders of Canada’s history of colonialism. Consequently, they are often the focal point of activism relating to issues of land claims, resource management, cultural appropriation, socio-economic conditions, sovereignty, and cultural freedom. Overall, the Indian Act afforded the government sweeping powers with regard to Indigenous identity, politics, governance, culture, and education. This power gave way to one of the most horrific events in Canadian history— the residential school system. 

Residential Schools in Canada

While the Canadian Federal Residential School System officially began in 1883, the origins of residential schools and other systematic mistreatments of Indigenous peoples began much earlier. The purpose of the residential schools was to assimilate Indigenous children into the newly established Canadian culture and was part of a bigger plan to colonize their land. Canada’s government and the Church worked together on this ethnic cleansing project in order to “solve the Indian Question,” which they saw as the threat of the Indigenous population as a barrier to the further development and construction of Canada.

Figure 1 – Kent Monkman Painting

When the children entered they had their hair cut off, dressed in uniforms, often given numbers as identification, forbidden to speak their language, had their names changed, and were forbidden to practice any Indigenous traditions. Boys and girls were kept separate, even brothers and sisters who were not allowed to communicate. They did not receive the same education as the rest of Canada as their studies were more tailored to practical skills, Cooking and cleaning for the girls and farming and carpentry for the boys. Often by the time students left these schools they had equivalent to a fifth-grade education by the age of 18, discouraging them from continuing their education. A large majority of the time students were put to work at the schools which were mandatory and unpaid, but necessary for the school to continue as they were very poorly funded. These federally funded church-run schools brought in over 150,000 First Nations, Inuit, and Metis children with locations in every province and territory other than Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland. The atrocities committed at these schools were, and still are unimaginable.

Figure 2 – Residential School Dorm

Physical, emotional, psychological, and sexual abuse was rampant throughout residential schools. Being beaten and strapped was a very regular form of punishment for the students. Some survivors have recalled having pins stuck in their tongues for speaking their native language. Beyond the physical mistreatment came poor living conditions. Sanitation, overcrowding, poor healthcare, and inadequate food services created a very high death toll. In 1907 a medical inspector named P.H Bryce reported that up to 24% of Indigenous children who were previously healthy were dying in residential schools. This statistic leaves out the children who were critically ill and sent home, often dying from their illnesses. Bryce also reported that anywhere from 47% to 75% of students who were discharged from these schools died shortly after returning home.

Figure 3 – Residential School Nurses

The last Canadian Residential School closed in 1996 in Saskatchewan – which was the location of the recent deeply disturbing and horrific discovery of an unmarked mass grave filled with 751 children. In the end, the aims of assimilation meant devastation for those who were subjected to years of abuse. Many of the social impacts found in Indigenous communities today (i.e., alcoholism, violence, abuse, suicide) have their roots firmly placed in the dark history of the residential school system. Additionally, due to the government’s attempts to eradicate all aspects of Indigenous culture from their youth, and block its transference from one generation to the next, the residential school system is commonly viewed as an occurrence of cultural genocide.

Since 1996, former students and relatives have demanded both recognition and restitution from the Canadian government and Canadian residents. This resulted in the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement in 2007 and a formal public apology by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2008. From the 2007 Agreement arose the compensation process, which as of March 2021 compensated thousands of victims, amounting to more than $3B. At the time, a final report from the committee overseeing the compensation process was released, providing an overview of the efforts taken to re-address the damage inflicted upon generations of Indigenous children.

Recent Discovery: Uncovering the Bodies

Video 1 – Names of Children Who Died in Residential Schools

The recent news of children’s bodies being found in unmarked grave sites at former residential schools across Canada has brought to light the horrendous history of these schools and the systematic mistreatment of Indigenous people in this country. 751 unmarked graves were found at Marieval Indian Residential School which operated from 1899 to 1996 in Saskatchewan (see figure 4). It is reported that the grave markers were removed sometime in the 1960s. This discovery follows the 215 children’s bodies found at a former residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia.

Figure 4 – Unmarked Mass Gravesite

Sadly, again, yesterday on June 30th, another mass gravesite was discovered in Cranbrook, BC at St. Eugene’s Mission School. The Residential School was operated by the Catholic Church from 1912 until the early 1970s, after which it was turned into a resort and casino, with an adjacent golf course owned by the Ktunaxa Nation (see figure 5). Yesterday, the Lower Kootenay Band announced their use of ground-penetrating radar to search a site nearby the former St. Eugene’s Mission School. The result of this search was the discovery of 182 children’s graves.

Figure 5 – Lands of Former Residential School

Since this discovery, the count of children’s bodies found at various residential school sites across Canada is 1,505. It is expected that there are more such discoveries to come. 

Official Reconciliation Efforts

Official discussions about the concept of reconciliation first began in Canada in 1998, when the federal government responded to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples’ report. The response was titled Gathering Strength: Canada’s Aboriginal Action Plan, in which a Statement of Reconciliation was included. In this document, the federal government recognized the role it played in the development and management of residential schools. When the report was unveiled, the minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development also announced the federal government’s commitment of $350M for community-based healing as a first step to “dealing with the legacy of physical and sexual abuse at residential schools.” However, Canada’s official apology for the residential school system didn’t come for another 11 years.

Figure 6 – TRC

That same year, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was set up to document the effects of residential schools on Indigenous peoples, and in 2015 they came out with an official definition for the reconciliation process. This includes: “establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in this country.” The TRC went on to state that in order for true reconciliation to occur in Canada, there has to be “awareness of the past, an acknowledgement of the harm that has been inflicted, atonement for the causes, and action to change behaviour.” As well, in 2015, the TRC released their Calls to Action, which seek to improve Indigenous people’s experiences with child welfare, education, language, culture, health, and justice. After the release of the TRC’s report, the term reconciliation became widely used by Indigenous peoples in the hopes that governments would address the various forms of abuse that had been carried out at residential schools. While this perspective was clearly optimistic, it has been since diminished by criticisms and questions about how reconciliation efforts have been carried out, and whether they have been sufficient.

Following the TRC’s creation of the Calls to Action, certain changes were made, such as educational institutions including the history of residential schools in their curricula. However, other institutions such as welfare agencies, healthcare services, and judicial systems have been much slower to impose meaningful changes that could improve upon relationships with Indigenous peoples. For instance, there continue to be significant barriers to access or success for Indigenous peoples in Canada, with continued overrepresentation in the justice system, higher mortality and addiction rates, lower employment and post-secondary education rates, and a lack of access to clean water, sanitation, and adequate healthcare.

In 2007, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) was adopted by the UN General Assembly with a majority of 144 States in favour, 4 against, and 11 abstained. Canada, along with Australia, New Zealand, and the United States voted against it. Let it be noted that these 4 Member States are the ones with the most significant Indigenous populations. It wasn’t until May 2016 that all 4 countries reversed their previous positions and chose to support the UN Declaration.

However, while Canada technically adopted UNDRIP in 2016, it wasn’t until 2019 that provinces passed Bills to ensure provincial and federal legislation and values were aligned. Even then, Indigenous peoples have stated that their rights have continued not to be respected, with leaders stating this lack of respect includes a lack of adequate government consultation, a lack of recognition of their rights regarding health and safety, and the continuation of undesirable resource projects being carried out on their lands. In 2018, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced his intention to establish a national day for Truth and Reconciliation. However, in February of 2019, a bill to create this holiday was not passed.

In terms of reconciliation, the government has put in place certain programs to attempt reconciliation with Indigenous communities and made public statements regarding their desire to reconcile. However, their actions say something vastly different. Their refusal to amend or replace legislation such as the Indian Act, and their continued unwillingness to improve conditions for Indigenous peoples in legal proceedings or their well-being, illustrates the large disparity between the Indigenous perspective on reconciliation, and that of the government. Until the Government of Canada and its provinces can decide that acting in the best interest of the country’s Indigenous communities is the same as acting in the best interest of Canada, then genuine reconciliation is impossible. 

Reconciliation Efforts: Indigenous & Non-Indigenous Community Members

While reconciliation efforts on our government’s behalf have not been up to par, that does not mean that we as community members and Canadians can’t do our part. That’s why The Sustainable Switch team is committed to doing our part. For us, this means ensuring adequate engagement, promoting and raising Indigenous voices, supporting the UNDRIP’s 94 Calls to Action, and acknowledging that we are settlers on this land. Official company documents for The Sustainable Switch committing to this and more are in the works and will be made public on our website as soon as it is available. We hope that our commitment will encourage other local businesses to take similar steps.

In light of this commitment, we decided to carry out a Canada Day survey via our Instagram stories, looking at our follower’s views on the holiday. To see what they said, view the results below.

Canada Day Survey

Question 1: Should Canada Day be Cancelled?

After asking our followers how they felt about Canada Day being cancelled, 76% said they think it should be, while 24% disagreed (see figure 7). We also asked respondents to briefly explain why they felt this way (see figure 8).

Figure 7 – Cancelling Canada Day
Figure 8 – Follower responses

Questions 2, 3 & 4: Do You Identify As Indigenous or A Settler?

Next, we asked our followers whether they identified as Indigenous, and then if they identified as a settler. For Question 2, 95% replied no, and 5% replied yes, and for Question 3, 69% responded yes, whilst 31% said no.

Figure 9 – Indigenous Identification
Figure 10 – Settler Identification

After asking whether or not they identify as settlers, we asked our followers: If you are not Indigenous, and do not identify as a settler, why not? Most of the replies were from individuals who needed better clarification on the subject – not understanding what being a “settler” means, or from those who immigrated to the country (whether by choice or force). One response was: “African American. My father’s family was stolen from their land and brought here.”

Questions 5 & 6: Did you ever learn about Residential Schools during your education? If so, at which point in your education did you learn about them?

Here we were interested in learning about how our schools have done in teaching our youth about the residential school system and Canada’s involvement. We were upset but unsurprised by the numbers, with 51% reporting they never learned about residential schools during their formal education (see figure 11).

Figure 11 – Education

Considering this, it was expected that many of those who know about Residential Schools learned about it during their post-secondary education or in their own time (see figure 12).

Figure 12 – Education Age

Question 7: In school, did you learn about the genocide of Indigenous peoples and their cultures?

Figure 13 – Genocide

Question 8: If asked randomly, how comfortable do you feel identifying the territory or treaty in which you reside?

We have to admit that this answer was rather surprising to us. We were anticipating a higher percentage of people to have no clue when it comes to identifying their local territory or Treaty.

14 – Treaty & Territory Identification

Question 9: Do you believe the Canadian Government should put more emphasis on reconciliation?

The majority of respondents believe that the Canadian government should be placing more emphasis on reconciliation efforts. However, 4% of respondents disagree.

Figure 15 – Reconciliation Efforts

Question 10: In your opinion, what does reconciliation look like?

Some select responses include:

Figure 16 – Follower responses

Question 11: Do you think our education system is currently adequate in addressing our history?

Figure 17 – Historical Education

This kind of decisiveness amongst such a diverse range of people highlights a significant problem. As such, we asked our followers where they believe the education system is lacking. Some key responses include:

Figure 18 – Follower responses

Question 12: Do you think that cancelling Canada Day this year is a sign of solidarity or do you consider it superficial?

Figure 19 – Solidarity or Superficial?

According to 81% of our followers, by not celebrating Canada Day this year, you are choosing to stand alongside your fellow Canadians, showing solidarity. Remember: None of us are truly free until we all are.

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