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Aug. 3, 2021 | Tuesday
Editorials and Opinions
Israelson: Canada Day a time to start dealing with Indigenous tragedy

David Israelson
Special to The Lake Report

What should we do about Canada Day 2021?

It’s hard for anyone with a conscience not to be conflicted about it this year.

Cities, towns, communities and individuals across the country are going through a lot of soul-searching as Canadians come to grips with a lot of ugly facts about our history. We have a lot to be proud of as Canadians, but we also have some big areas that more and more of us are looking at with horrible shame.

And nowhere is our history more shameful than in the relationship with Indigenous Peoples.

There are so many difficulties that arise from the discovery of hundreds of children’s graves at residential schools that it’s hard to know where to start. Probably the first place is to register shock, sorrow and sympathy. What a terrible, sad crime.

It’s worse because it was a crime that was committed in plain sight and in the name of Canadians — residential schools were not a secret; they were government policy. This is compounded by the fact that these dens of injustice operated for decades, until the 1990s; if we didn’t know better by then, the question is why?

There are layers and layers of horror to this story — how children were ripped away from their families, how this was done under the auspices of organized religion, how it was justified time and again by leaders who many Canadians respected so much that we named schools after them, put up statues for them and put their faces on our money.

The questions now are: how can we celebrate this country while coming to grips with this darkness that dwells within? Should we celebrate at all? What should we do?

Even among reasonable, caring Canadians, there are different schools of thought about this. Some people think it’s inappropriate to do anything this year for Canada Day — how can we light fireworks, wave flags and eat cake when we have such a shameful past?

Others think we should go ahead anyway — sure, some terrible things were done in Canadians’ names, and residential schools are among the most terrible. But there are a lot of good things about Canada and we need to recognize these too, according to this view.

I think this year, more than others, is a time not so much to celebrate, but to recognize and observe Canada on its birthday and to come to terms with the good and the bad.

Despite some truly evil aspects of our legacy, there are a lot of good things — actually great things — about Canada, and we should not discount these or take them for granted. A milestone like Canada Day is a chance to note these.

We don’t “celebrate” Remembrance Day on Nov. 11, for example — it’s a serious day that we use to thank people who sacrificed for us and to be thankful for the better lives their sacrifices have enabled most of us to enjoy.

We should be thankful this year that our country, at age 154, is mature enough that we’re starting to come to grips with the bad parts of our history.

“Start” is the operative word. Apologies are in order as well as shame and sorrow, regardless of whether the appalling legacy of Indigenous relations in Canada occurred generations before we were born or right under our noses today.

We should keep in sight what happened yesterday and, regrettably, still happens — seriously, how many years before every First Nation has proper drinking water? What’s taking so long?

But Canada Day — and Canada itself — should be about tomorrow too. How can we make the future better?

Here’s a suggestion. Let’s listen.

Indigenous Peoples in Canada are rich in tradition, history, culture and ideas, and sometimes it feels like many Canadians never really noticed. Now, more than ever before, it’s time to take the opportunity and pay attention to this wonderful wellspring and welcome it to the centre of Canadian life.

That would be good for everyone this Canada Day … and the day after too.

Niagara-on-the-Lake resident David Israelson is a non-practising lawyer, writer and consultant.