Reflect on, but also celebrate Canada Day

A large group of people gathered on the Cowessess First Nation in southeast Saskatchewan on Saturday night to honour those who were buried in what are believed to be 751 unmarked graves at the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School Photo: Olivier Rouquairol Jodouin / CBC

Marco Levytsky, Editorial Writer.

June 24 even more unmarked graves were found at the site of a residential school. This time there were 751 bodies identified at the Cowessess First Nation, located 164 kilometres east of Regina and site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan. This has prompted calls to make this year’s Canada Day a day of reflection and some cities have even decided to suspend Canada Day celebrations altogether. Well, that’s akin to throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

While it is perfectly right to reflect upon past wrongs and historic injustices, it is also perfectly right to celebrate Canada Day for all the reasons that make this the great country we all want to live in. First of all, what does Canada Day commemorate? It commemorates Confederation – three British colonies – Canada (which was divided into Ontario and Quebec), Nova Scotia and New Brunswick joined together to form the Dominion of Canada – autonomous in many ways, but not yet fully independent of Great Britain. That was to come in 1931 with the passage of the Statute of Westminster and full sovereignty in 1984 with the patriation of our Constitution. Up until then our Constitution was still the British North America Act which was passed on July 1, 1867 by the British Parliament and established Confederation and the new Dominion.

In 1867 the new Dominion covered only a tiny sliver of our present-day territory – Nova Scotia and New Brunswick plus the southern parts of Quebec and Ontario – the St. Lawrence Valley and the land just north of Lakes Ontario and Erie. The big territorial addition was to come two years later – Rupert’s Land, owned up to that point by the Hudson’s Bay Company. It was mostly wilderness, sparsely populated by Indigenous people who roamed freely and traded with the Hudson’s Bay Company. Once the vast territory was settled it provided the vast northern expanse of present-day Ontario and Quebec, and the creation of three new provinces – Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, plus the territories. British Columbia joined Confederation in 1871, Prince Edward Island in 1873 and Newfoundland in 1949. But it was the acquisition of Rupert’s Land that brought the vast majority of indigenous people under Canada’s control. The Crown subsequently signed a number of treaties with the First Nations promising – among other things – education. What resulted were residential schools – most definitely not what the Indigenous people had in mind when they asked for education. That the children were torn from their families, abused both physically and mentally, forbidden to speak their native tongues, criminally neglected, stricken with diseases that killed many of them and subjected to what amounted to cultural genocide is all true and deserves reflection.

But when one reflects upon Canada Day, it is critical to look upon it in its full historical context. Confederation led to the development of a prosperous and vibrant democracy that is internationally recognized as one of the best countries to live in and, as a result, has become a magnet for people from around the world. From the earliest days of the Dominion, successive waves of foreigners have come here by choice and continue to choose Canada as their preferred country of residence. That speaks volumes about the desirability of Canadian citizenship. For all the wrongs that have been committed by the Crown against First Nations and others, Canada is still one of the best places in the world to call home.

What’s more, Canada is a country that is not afraid to come to grips with the shameful episodes of its past be it the Residential School system, be it the internment of Ukrainians in World War I and the Japanese in World War II, be it the Chinese Head Tax or be it any other racially inspired incidents. Both Conservative and Liberal Governments have acknowledged these black marks on our history and striven to seek reconciliation. Not many countries are willing to do that. Does Russia acknowledge the Holodomor? Does China acknowledge its persecution of Moslem Uighurs and Buddhist Tibetans? Does Turkey acknowledge the 1915 Armenian Genocide?

No. It takes a mature and stable democracy to acknowledge the sins of the past, seek reconciliation, compensate the victims and correct the wrongful actions of the past. And Canada is such a country. That, in itself, is truly something to celebrate. So, yes. Do reflect upon the dark chapters of our history on Canada Day, but also celebrate all the good things this country has to offer and strive to make it even better.