Looking for hope (part 14)

This week, we entered Step 2 of “Reopening Ontario.” I ate on patios, twice. I crossed the border into Quebec for the first time in a year to visit friends, where we were able to eat inside at a restaurant. I soaked up the beauty of the forests that surrounded their home, listened to the loudest bullfrogs I have ever heard and sat by the Gatineau River watching kayakers and canoeists paddle by.

But in the same week, record-breaking high temperatures throughout western Canada led to hundreds of deaths and out of control forest fires, Bill Cosby was released from prison after his sexual assault conviction was overturned by Pennsylvania’s top court and more unmarked grave sites of Indigenous children killed by Canada’s residential school system were found.

Despite the many pleasant aspects of my personal life, there was little hope to be found this week.

Cancelling Canada Day?

Celebrating Canada’s birthday has never been an event in our household. While we appreciate the many privileges that come from living in this country, we are all too aware of Canada’s faults, both domestically and internationally. Never has this been as true as this year, with the recent discoveries of more than 1,000 children’s graves on the sites of former residential schools in British Columbia and Saskatchewan and the certainty of many more yet to be found across the country.

Canada’s citizenship oath now requires new citizens to commit to “faithfully observe the laws of Canada, including the Constitution, which recognizes and affirms the Aboriginal and treaty rights of First Nations, Inuit and Metis people.” While this is one of the 94 Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), it seems like a case of putting the cart before the horse, given that the federal government has failed to implement many other of the Commission’s recommendations; the issues of adequate housing and potable water on many First Nations across the country remain unaddressed, and violence against Indigenous women and girls continues unabated.

Truth before justice

In an article in Canadian Dimension this week, Mi’kmaw citizen and member of the Eel River Bar First Nation, lawyer and chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University, Pam Palmater wrote:

“A national day of mourning and collective reflection in honour of these children is far more fitting than the usual fireworks and parades which celebrate a country founded on genocide – a genocide that continues unabated. If ever there was a time for Canadians to redirect their attention to the outcomes of Canada’s brutal Indian policy, it is now. . . . [I]t is time to confront our collective truth, so we can finally move towards justice.”

She points out that of the 3,200 deaths that the TRC was able to document, the names of 32 percent and the gender of 23 percent of the children were not documented by any authority. No cause of death is listed in 50 percent of the cases. Generally, bodies were not returned to the children’s communities, and most of the cemeteries have been long since abandoned.

Calls to Action 71 to 76 specifically address the issue of missing children and burial information: recommendations the government ought to have addressed before ensuring that new Canadians commit to supporting the rights of Indigenous peoples in this country.

Not cancel culture

Some municipalities did cancel Canada Day celebrations. (From the sound of fireworks late into the night where I live, I think it is safe to say that Kingston was not one of those municipalities.) In other cities and towns, while official Canada Day events took place, so did counter-events. Marches to honour children who died in residential schools were held in Toronto and Montreal, a statue of Queen Victoria was pulled down in Winnipeg, and other gatherings focused on reading the TRC’s Calls to Action. Tens of thousands of people wore orange or hung orange shirts, dresses or fabric from the front of their homes.

The Algonquins of Pikwakanagan on Golden Lake in Renfrew County, Ontario, held a healing and reflection ceremony, with the sound of drumming and the light from hundreds of candles circling the lake.

The Canadian flag atop the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill flew at half-mast yesterday, but when William Blackstock tried to plant hundreds of small orange flags in the lawn in front of the Parliament buildings, he was told they posed a safety hazard so he had to move to another location.

Palmater points out that cancelling the usual Canada Day celebrations has “nothing to do with co-called ‘cancel-culture – the dog whistle term used by angry white men who benefit from the status quo. On the contrary #CancelCanadaDay is what real reconciliation looks like.”

“Cancelling Canada Day fireworks and parades will not end Canada, nor will it erase our history. What it might do, however is rewrite our future history so that we do not waste another 20 years looking the other way and hoping Indigenous pain and trauma will simply go away. . . We cannot hope to move towards meaningful reconciliation without first exposing the truth and achieving justice for Indigenous peoples.”

Palmater’s cautious hope will only become a reality if the talk of the past couple of weeks turns into action now that Canada Day has passed for another year. That’s on each of us: what we do In our personal lives, in our communities and to hold political leaders accountable.

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