Celebrations of Canada’s national day muted amid furor over unmarked graves
TORONTO — Celebrations of Canada’s national day were more subdued than usual in parts of the country Thursday amid mounting fury and grief over the recent discoveries of more than 1,000 unmarked graves on or near the grounds of former residential schools for Indigenous children.
Several communities said their festivities would be altered. Others said they were scrapping or postponing them altogether. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau resisted calls to cancel virtual celebrations, but said the Canadian flag on the Peace Tower in Ottawa would remain at half-staff.
In a statement Thursday, Trudeau acknowledged that “for some, Canada Day is not yet a day of celebration.”
“We, as Canadians, must be honest with ourselves about our history because in order to chart a new and better path forward, we have to recognize the terrible mistakes of the past,” he said. “The truth is we’ve got a long way to go to make things right with Indigenous peoples.”
The holiday comes as Canada grapples with one of the darkest chapters of its not-so-distant history: the announcement on Wednesday of another discovery of unmarked graves at or near a former school for Indigenous children — at least the third such find since late May.
The Lower Kootenay Band, part of the Ktunaxa First Nation, said ground-penetrating radar had revealed 182 human remains in unmarked graves — some as shallow as three feet — near the grounds of the former St. Eugene’s Mission School in British Columbia. The school was operated by a Catholic group until it closed in the 1970s.
“It is believed that the remains of these 182 souls are from the member Bands of the Ktunaxa nation, neighboring First Nations communities, & the [local] community of aqam,” the Lower Kootenay Band said in a statement.
The Lower Kootenay Band’s announcement comes one month after the discovery of 215 unmarked graves at another former residential school in British Columbia sparked a national reckoning. Last week, an even larger discoveryunderscored the extent of the abuse.
The discoveries have been vindication for Indigenous people, who have long told stories about the graves, as well as a visceral, jolting reminder of Canada’s mistreatment of them.
Indigenous leaders expect to find many more unmarked graves as communities across the country turn to ground-penetrating radar to unearth dark secrets buried for decades.
“This is the beginning of these discoveries,” tweeted Perry Bellegarde, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, on Wednesday.
Nearly 150,000 Indigenous children were sent to the government-funded and often church-run boarding schools, which were set up in the 19th century to assimilate them and operated until the late 1990s. Many students were forcibly separated from their families to be placed in the schools.
Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission said in a 2015 report that many of the students were subjected to physical and sexual abuse at the schools, which barred them from practicing their traditions and speaking their languages. It said that schools carried out “cultural genocide” and effectively institutionalized child neglect.
The commission identified more than 3,000 students who died at the schools, a rate that was far higher than for non-Indigenous school-age children. That number has since grown. Children, who were often malnourished, died of diseases. Others died in fires, accidents and while trying to escape.
Pope Francis, who has expressed sorrow over the graves but stopped short of apologizing for the Catholic Church’s role, has agreed to meet with residential school survivors. The Canadian government and some Catholic groups, as well as the country’s Presbyterian, Anglican and United churches, which also ran the schools, have apologized for their roles in the abuse.
Since the first graves were discovered, more than a half-dozen churches across the country, including a number on Indigenous land, have been vandalized or burned. Authorities have cast the fires as suspicious.
On Wednesday, police in Alberta and Nova Scotia said that they were investigating two suspicious fires at Roman Catholic churches, at least the fifth and sixth such fires in 10 days. Others churches have been defaced. In Saskatchewan, a Catholic church was splattered with red handprints and the words, “We were children.”
Trudeau on Wednesday denounced the spate of vandalism and the fires.
“This is not the way to go,” he said. “The destruction of places of worship is unacceptable and it must stop.”
“Hate-inspired violence, burning down faith communities, targeting them with these acts of violence and intimidation is not reconciliation,” Alberta Premier Jason Kenney told reporters as he toured the charred remains of a century-old church in the town of Morinville.
Bellegarde, the First Nations chief, urged restraint.
“I can understand the frustration and the anger and the hurt and the pain,” he said. “But to burn things down is not our way.”