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Following the discovery of the undocumented remains of 215 Indigenous children in Kamloops, some cities are calling off Canada Day celebrations
A few months after the 150th anniversary of Confederation, Ginger Gosnell-Myers (Skusgluums) delivered a wake-up call to Canadians.
In a TEDx Vancouver talk in November 2017, the Nisga’a and Kwakwaka’wakw public-policy analyst spoke about how she first learned about the impact of Canada’s Indian residential school system on her family, including her father.
She was 17 years old at the time, flipping through TV channels. She came across her uncle in front of a black screen.
“He talked about how bad it got – that there was a lot of violence and a lot of abuse against the kids – and how much he missed his parents,” Gosnell-Myers said. “When he talked about the abuse he’d experienced and seen, he cried. And years later when he was finally able to go home, he no longer understood the Nisga’a language and couldn’t even talk with his own parents.”
I recently contacted Gosnell-Myers, now the Indigenous fellow with the SFU Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue, to ask what Canada Day means to her in light of what happened to so many of her relatives.
“I can’t celebrate Canada because all they’ve ever done is harm my family and myself and my ancestors – and people don’t even know this,” Gosnell-Myers said.
She cited one example of this history that touched her directly. At a family gathering, an uncle told her that when he and the others came back from residential school, they had to relearn the Nisga’a language.
But they also decided not to teach it to the next generation at home for fear that it could be used against them.
“None of my cousins learned how to speak Nisga’a fluently, not like our parents,” Gosnell-Myers said. “That was a decision made to help us better succeed. That makes me really angry and made them really angry and sad too.”
Gosnell-Myers has not celebrated Canada Day in a long time – and on this July 1, she won’t be alone.
Municipal governments in Victoria, Penticton, and Port Hardy have cancelled their Canada Day celebrations, citing the recent discovery of the remains of 215 children on the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
Meanwhile, Vancouver supporters of Idle No More, a movement of Indigenous activists across the country, will hold a “Cancel Canada Day” event on July 1 on the north side of the Vancouver Art Gallery, using the slogan “No Pride in Genocide”.
“We will not celebrate the ongoing genocide within Canada against Indigenous people,” a Facebook announcement reads. “Instead we will gather to honour all of the lives lost to the Canadian state, including the many lives lost to residential schools.”
Opposition to Canada Day hasn’t only been triggered by the discovery of undocumented graves of Indigenous children.
The murder of four members of the Afzaal family on June 6 in London, Ontario – in what police say was a hate crime – has also shaken the country. The father, Salman, and his wife, Madiha, were out on a walk with their two children and the kids’ grandmother when a motorist deliberately mowed them down with his vehicle.
Imtiaz Popat, a cofounder of the Coalition Against Bigotry–Pacific, says that it’s not possible for Muslims to celebrate Canada Day in light of this horrific crime. That’s because the grieving period is supposed to last 40 days, which he said won’t end until July 9.
“For us Muslims, we are in mourning,” Popat said. “This is our family that was murdered.”
Popat has frequently referred to Canada Day as “Colonial Day.” He noted that nobody commemorates the day that the British occupied India, so to him, it’s nonsensical to hold a party on the day that Canada swallowed up Indigenous territory occupied by First Nations.
“It’s not something to celebrate,” Popat said. “I think it’s day to reflect.”
Jenny Kwan, the NDP MP for Vancouver East, said the rising violence against Asian Canadians, as well as the terrorist attack on the Afzaal family, reflects deep-seated issues within the country.
“People always say when those incidents occur that, ‘This is not our Canada,’ ” Kwan said in a phone interview. “Well, I’m sorry, this is our Canada. And this is not the first time the Muslim community has suffered such a violent and unspeakable attack for being who they are.”
The next bombshell raising questions about Canada’s commitment to equality came on June 15 when Nunavut NDP MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq delivered a scathing farewell speech in Parliament.
The Inuk politician talked about everything from being racially profiled by House of Commons security staff to the lack of government action in response to the high rate of suicide among her people.
According to Kwan, Qaqqaq said out loud what many Indigenous peoples and Inuit have always felt.
Kwan suggested that every time the government brags about its work, it’s insulting to someone like Qaqqaq, who is watching members of her own community suffer immensely, including taking their own lives, because of Canada’s colonial history.
“I think this Canada Day, we need to reflect on, first and foremost, Canada’s colonization history and the ongoing impact for Indigenous peoples, especially with the finding of the mass graves in Kamloops,” the Vancouver NDP MP added.
Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett has said in Parliament that the Kamloops burial site was not a “mass grave.” Bennett cited Kúkpi7 (Chief) Roseanne Casimir of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation, which revealed the existence of the remains of 215 Indigenous children.
However, Bennett’s interpretation of “mass grave” has been challenged by Vancouver Granville MP Jody Wilson-Raybould.
She has cited a discussion paper on terminology posted on the website of UBC’s Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre. It stated that “the emerging international human rights and legal norm is to classify such sites as ‘mass graves.’ ”
“Canada has no legal framework to address the Tk’emlúps site or any other site that will come to light,” Wilson-Raybould, a former regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said in Parliament this month. “The legal framework has led to the deaths of these children. That legal framework, the Indian Act, remains in place.
“Will the prime minister do what is needed to establish a legal framework for mass and unmarked graves, meeting human-rights norms, including all records are kept and released, sites protected, criminal investigations conducted, and that the families can heal and are appropriately compensated?”
Bennett replied that the government is reaching out to other Indigenous communities with the support of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation to find their lost children.
“We will make sure this is done in a proper and legal way,” the minister said.
UN 2020: “a mass grave is a burial site where the “circumstances surrounding the death &/or the body-disposal method warrant an investigation as to their lawfulness.”@Carolyn_Bennett 2021: Tk’emlúps is “not a mass grave”
https://t.co/3CCKi4Bvdy— Jody Wilson-Raybould 王州迪 Vancouver Granville (@Puglaas) June 9, 2021
Even in the face of atrocities committed as a result of the Indian Act, Wilson-Raybould remains a proud Indigenous Canadian and includes the Canadian flag on her Twitter profile.
“I often proudly state ‘I am Indigenous. And Canadian,'” she stated on her feed on National Indigenous Peoples Day on June 21.
In the wake of the discovery of the remains of Indigenous children, Wilson-Raybould declared that only “true action matters.”
“Time & again our leaders have not acted. Canadians must now lead our leaders.”
I often proudly state “I am Indigenous. And Canadian”.
We are increasingly aware of how our history shapes our present. #215
Only true action matters. Time & again our leaders have not acted.
Canadians must now lead our leaders. #Justice #cdnpoli #NationalIndigenousPeoplesDay pic.twitter.com/YEKbACer9T— Jody Wilson-Raybould 王州迪 Vancouver Granville (@Puglaas) June 21, 2021
Wilson-Raybould is not unusual in her attachment to Canada.
A recent report by the Environics Institute reported that majorities of Indigenous peoples feel “very attached” to Canada. In fact, “almost nine in ten say they feel either very or somewhat attached.”
This sentiment is stronger among younger Indigenous people, who are “more likely than their non-Indigenous counterparts to have a strong feeling of attachment to Canada.”
“For most Indigenous Peoples, attachment to Canada and to their Indigenous nation or community overlaps: almost two in three feel attached to both,” the Environics Institute reported.
Gosnell-Myers is a fellow of the institute and, in the past, was a project director of a previous study surveying Indigenous people across the country. She pointed out the need to respect that there is a diversity of Indigenous political opinions when it comes to identity.
“What my Environics study did find, though, while there are significant numbers of Indigenous peoples who are proud to be Canadian, they don’t see themselves as Canadian like every other Canadian,” Gosnell-Myers noted.
“They are still very much First Nations or Métis or Inuit,” she continued. “They still very much recognize that they have cultural and land rights. And that for them, being Canadian is a little different than probably the average non-Indigenous Canadian.”
The fact that Canadian politicians are debating the definition of a mass grave is another indication that a great deal remains hidden about the history of Indian residential schools.
In this regard, Gosnell-Myers’s TEDx Vancouver talk nearly four years ago proved to be prophetic.
After taking the audience through the history of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, she contrasted this country’s record in dealing with its past with that of two other countries – Germany and New Zealand.
Unlike Canada, she said that each of those nations have embedded truth and reconciliation into their national identity.
Gosnell-Myers pointed out that Germany has entrenched extensive education about the Second World War and the Holocaust into the school system.
By 2016, she said in her talk, Germany had provided 73 billion euros in payments in recognition of the country’s wrongs.
In New Zealand, she added, the Maori culture and language are part of the national identity – to the point where all residents of the country feel pride in this.
In an interview, Gosnell-Myers said she was motivated to give that talk because she didn’t feel that Canada was serious about advancing reconciliation with Indigenous peoples in the wake of the 2015 TRC reports and its 94 calls to action.
She felt that by providing a comparison with Germany and New Zealand’s authentic reconciliation efforts, it might inspire people to think of new possibilities for Canada.
“For myself, at the time of creating that [TEDx] talk, I was really disappointed to see that the activities to support the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s work just stopped,” Gosnell-Myers said. “It was such an important opportunity for the paradigm shift that we needed and I felt like most decision makers just made the decision to drop the ball.
“I think Canada can learn from New Zealand that Indigenous knowledge absolutely has a place in how we govern our society and our natural resources – and using Indigenous identity to create a new set of values,” she continued.
“You know, values that reflect the land, reflect the people who have been caring for those lands. And that there was space for non-Indigenous people to also feel pride in seeing Indigenous knowledge being incorporated into all aspects of their society.”
Gosnell-Myers said decision makers in Germany and New Zealand invested in new approaches to ensure these types of ideas could be embedded into the national fabric.
She doesn’t believe that this has occurred yet in Canada – and that future generations deserve an opportunity to learn the truth without having to stumble across it while flipping through channels on the TV set, like she did.
“I’m hoping that next July 1, Canada Day celebrations will look and feel and sound a lot different, because all I’ve seen to date is mindless patriotism,” Gosnell-Myers said.
“I see them out with Canada flags painted on their cheeks waving the flags around. I think, ‘God, you don’t know much about this country, do you?’ Because if you did, you wouldn’t be celebrating, not like this.”
This story originally appeared in the Georgia Straight.