This July 1st, the date we celebrate Canada Day, will be like no other in our history.
I don’t need to explain to any of you why that is. It’s impossible to be living in Canada today and not understand the painful crossroads we find ourselves at. Our nation’s systemic racism is exposed for all to see, no longer deniable. The previously hidden graves of almost 1000 Indigenous children who died in residential schools are now known to us, and 2021 must become the year that everything changes.
In London, Ontario, four members of a Muslim family were killed in what is alleged to be premeditated murder when a truck driven by young man plowed through them. Three generations were killed that day, leaving only one small boy surviving, an orphan who witnessed the brutal killing of his grandmother, mother, father and sister.
The sites of other residential schools will also be investigated, so we are bracing for more painful reports of dead children; children who died without the love and comfort of their families; children who would likely not have died at all if they had not been forcibly torn from their parents and communities.
Roots of Compassion
My first career was as a registered nurse. In that capacity, I worked to comfort people in pain, to calm those who were afraid of what was happening to them, and to be with those facing death. I am sickened about what happened to the children who died in residential schools. Did they have someone who cared for them or comforted them as they died? Did anyone grieve their deaths? And what happened to the children who were left behind? How could we have been so absent of compassion? We advocate for an ethical and just society where children cannot simply be discarded.
As animal advocates, we work hard to build a compassionate society that cares for and protects people, animals and the environment. We are intricately linked to each other, to the animals and to our world as many Indigenous peoples have understood much longer than western societies.
We Canadians like to see ourselves as a gentler, kinder nation; a community built on progressive values. But as animal advocates we’ve been sharing with you how untrue that is when it comes to the protection and treatment of animals. For more than three decades we’ve raised the alarm that Canada is not a leader in even one area of the treatment and protection of animals of any species, of any category. We have long known that our political relationships with Indigenous peoples are not built on fairness. It’s no secret that treaties have not been honoured. The existence of the residential schools has been widely discussed for many years. But, the discovery of such a large number of dead children whose bodies were dumped in the ground instead of being returned to their parents and communities is a moment of reckoning that cannot be ignored.
Worse still is the knowledge that so many children died while under the care of the government and church groups, yet all those deaths did not raise alarms. The politicians ignored the deaths and the church groups continued to participate in a brutal system.
Everything changes now. It must. If not, we can never claim to be the kind of nation we like to think we are.
What does this mean for this July 1st? There are calls to make it a ‘National Day of Mourning.’ For this year, that seems right. Going forward in the years to come, it could become a ‘Day of National Resolve,’ a day where we resolve to remember what has come before and to make right past wrongs, to build better communities and societies. That would be worth a celebration.
We don’t need to make light of the many advantages we enjoy living in a democratic nation with relative safety and wealth. It’s easy to understand why so many people around the world want to come to Canada. It’s possible to celebrate our deep commitment and affection for our own national community, our broader tribal group that provides our security and sense of belonging. But, surely the greatest form of patriotism is to fearlessly examine the structures of our society as opposed to simple flag-waving and a pride based on denial of the truth.
What are concrete steps we can take to make things right?
We can demand that our federal politicians vigorously challenge Bill 21 in Quebec, the bill that bans employees of public institutions from wearing culturally-significant clothing like the turban that the leader of the NDP chooses to wear.
We can demand that a new seat on Canada’s Supreme Court be created to be filled by an Indigenous judge. Those are places to start, with much more to follow.
We can work toward a new relationship with Indigenous people in the manner so eloquently described by Métis writer and artist David Garneau. He suggests that “reconciliation” is not adequate to address the treatment of Indigenous peoples in our country. He writes, “Reconciliation refers to the repair of a previously existing harmonious relationship. This word choice imposes the fiction that equanimity is the status quo between Aboriginal people and Canada.”
Rather, he argues that conciliation is the way forward, moving equitably together toward a new relationship. He describes conciliation as “the action of bringing into harmony – a peaceable or friendly union.”
This July 1st we can make Canada Day the beginning of our work towards conciliation.
This is our moment, Canada. Let’s rise to the occasion.