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Indigenous people gather at the site of Kamloops Indian Residential School.

Indigenous people in Kamloops, British Columbia gather on June 5, 2021 in front of the Kamloops Indian Residential School after the remains of 215 children were discovered near the institution. (Photo: Cole Burston/AFP via Getty Images)

Calls to Cancel Canada Day and Secure Justice for Indigenous People After Mass Graves Found

"We will not celebrate stolen Indigenous land and stolen Indigenous lives," said advocacy group Idle No More.

Julia Conley

A number of Canadian communities have answered calls to cancel Canada Day, the country's annual celebration of its establishment as a country 154 years ago, following the discovery of nearly 1,000 unmarked graves on the grounds of residential schools for Indigenous children.

The calls to cancel the holiday are just part of the outraged and grief-stricken response of Indigenous people across the country, who are demanding Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government act swiftly to implement all of the recommendations of a national Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the country's residential school system.

"Indigenous people deserve more than words and promises. These horrific discoveries make it undeniably clear: the federal government has failed and is continuing to fail First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities."
—Jagmeet Singh, New Democratic Party

The system was run by the Catholic Church beginning in the 19th century, and the last residential schools remained open until the 1990s. At least 150,000 Indigenous children were taken from their families and suffered horrific abuse. They were forced to use new names and covert to Christianity, and were often violently punished if they used their native languages. 
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded in 2015 that the schools were part of an attempted "cultural genocide."
In recent weeks, radar technology has been used by Indigenous communities to find what leaders believe to be the remains of hundreds of children at the schools. 
The Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation found 215 bodies in unmarked graves on the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia late last month, and last week the Cowessess First Nation discovered the remains of 751 people at another former school. Officials believe the discoveries represent a fraction of the remains that may eventually be found. 
The Indigenous-led movement Idle No More, which has fought against the country's dismantling of environmental protection laws for nearly a decade, is urging Canadians to gather on July 1 not to celebrate Canada Day but to instead "honor all of the lives lost to the Canadian State—Indigenous lives, Black Lives, Migrant lives, Women and Trans and 2Spirit lives—all of the relatives that we have lost."
"We will not celebrate stolen Indigenous land and stolen Indigenous lives," said Idle No More.
The hashtag #CancelCanadaDay has taken off on social media in recent days.
"Canceling Canada Day is a move towards truth, justice and reconciliation," said attorney and educator Pam Palmater, a member of the Eel River Bar First Nation. "If ever there was a time for Canadians to redirect their attention to the outcomes of Canada's brutal Indian policy, it is now."
Cities and towns including Victoria, British Columbia; Wilmont Township, Ontario; and Dawson City, Yukon have canceled the holiday this year, with Dawson City officials redirecting funds planned for the celebration to an  investigation into residential schools in Yukon. 
"I acknowledge that the Indigenous community has suffered and continues to suffer and grieve," said Angie Hallman, a member of Wilmont Township's Canada Day committee. "We stop, sit, and grieve in silence with them."
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which found that malnutrition, disease, and physical, sexual, and emotional abuse were rampant at the facilities, made 94 recommendations for helping to secure justice for survivors of the system and Indigenous people across Canada. Fourteen of them have been completed and 23 projects are underway to implement more of the calls to action, while 57 have not been started at all or have only been proposed, including:
  • Requiring publicly-funded denominational schools to teach comparative religious studies including Aboriginal spiritual beliefs;
  • Requiring the government of Canada to develop a policy of transparency on legal opinions upon which it acts in regard to Aboriginal and Treaty rights​;
  • Eliminating the overrepresentation of Aboriginal youth in custody; and 
  • Identifying and closing the gaps in health outcomes between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities
New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh called on Trudeau's government to implement the remaining calls to action.
"Indigenous people deserve more than words and promises," said Singh. "These horrific discoveries make it undeniably clear: the federal government has failed and is continuing to fail First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities."

A 24-hour national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support: 1-866-925-4419.

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