As a kid, I grew up believing that Canada was the best country in the world. That’s what we were all taught. Because of my family’s history in this country, I knew that Canada had not always been as just and kind as it seemed, that there was a history of deep injustices. But I was taught and I believed that injustice in Canada was a thing of the past, that this was a country of human rights, where everyone else wanted to be, that we were part of a thriving “mosaic.” I happily engaged in every Canadian’s favourite pastime — making fun of Americans because we intrinsically knew we were better, and even if things weren’t perfect, well, at least we weren’t the U.S. If we needed proof, we could just look to our universal health care system and the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
I can’t remember the exact moment that I learned this wasn’t true. However, I know that I only learned the truth — not only about Canada’s history, but also about our present — because I went looking for it. There was no explanation of how Canada stole Indigenous land to profit from its resources or the atrocities committed to ensure that the Indigenous peoples who survived wouldn’t interfere. Not in elementary or middle school, not in high school and no required courses in university.
But once you learn the truth of Canada, there is no going back.
Here’s the secret: the atrocities of Canada’s past aren’t really the past at all. Colonialism continues. Racism continues. Canada did not finish the “colonial project” and so the government continues to work at it, and Indigenous peoples continue to fight against it. Canada continues to take more land, steal more resources, ignore Indigenous rights, discriminate in funding and services and erase the past. Canada continues to respond to challenges to its authority with violence, while teaching Canadians that we live in a country free of racism and injustice.
In the past few years, Canadians have been reminded of this reality, with 215 unmarked graves of children found at the Kamloops Indian Residential School and more children found at yet more schools. These are the graves of Indigenous children who were required by law to attend Residential Schools where they were taught their cultures were wrong and were punished for speaking their languages, and where many experienced horrific abuse.
Thousands of potential unmarked graves of children have since been found, with many “schools” still to be searched. In response, organizations and individuals shared messages of solidarity, emphasizing that every child matters. In the mean time, the government doubled down on taking survivors to court, arguing that they are not responsible for the consequences of the church and government-run “schools.” Most schools today don’t have their own graveyards. The fact that so many Residential Schools did goes to show that the nature of the Residential School System was always insidious.
Since these discoveries, the headlines and attention have moved on. The news cycle and therefore Canadians have moved on. But that doesn’t mean that the families of those who were lost in Residential and Day Schools have moved on. It doesn’t mean the problem has been solved. It only means we have a short attention span.
Celebrating Canada Day in the midst of this doesn’t feel right, for several reasons. After all, how can we celebrate the country that contributed to the deaths of children as they continue to be found? Now that the truth about Canadian history is more well known, it’s becoming less and less defensible to choose to celebrate the same country that committed and continues to commit genocide against Indigenous peoples. But here’s another reason: Canada did these things for us. We may not be directly responsible for Residential Schools and the horrors committed there, but the government instituted these policies and ran these schools for us, so our ancestors and us could benefit from Indigenous lands and resources unencumbered. And we have.
The grief I feel for what I thought Canada was cannot outweigh my grief for the children being found, their families or their communities. More importantly, the grief I feel as a result of the fracturing of the Canadian “national image” cannot outweigh my rage. It cannot outweigh the rage that these atrocities were and are committed for our benefit, in our names. It cannot outweigh the rage that we were never taught the whole truth. It does not outweigh the responsibility we all have to make it stop.
The Government of Canada continues to remove Indigenous children from their homes and communities and discriminate against Indigenous communities. These are our elected officials. Celebrating the country that continues to commit genocide in our names is wrong. So cancel your Canada Day celebrations. We have nothing to celebrate.