Canada Day 2021 may be a July 1 unlike any other.
The discovery of 215 children’s bodies at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School has many questioning whether it’s appropriate to celebrate.
Hamish Telford, associate professor of political science at the University of the Fraser Valley (UFV), suggests a different kind of Canada Day is called for.
“I do believe a country needs to celebrate its successes, but in a critical and reflective kind of way, and that’s not what we tend to get on Canada Day at the best of times,” he explained. “I don’t think most people even know what they’re celebrating on Canada Day, historically speaking.”
Up until 1982, Canada Day was called Dominion Day, set aside to commemorate the beginning of what used to be called the British/North American act of 1867. That’s when Canada became a self-governing colony in the British Empire. While that has led to many great things, it also empowered the federal government to pass the Indian Act in 1876.
That in turn led to residential schools.
“But nobody knows that,” Telford lamented. “If there was a little more historical context around the day, if we actually took a moment to reflect on what we’re celebrating, both in terms of what it’s produced positively as well as its negative side, I think that would be helpful.”
Telford likened it to a wedding, which is equal parts solemn and jubilant.
“People take vows and say very serious things to each other or family,” he elaborated. “It’s an occasion that celebrates in a thoughtful and reflective way what marriage means, what it takes to make it work and the sacrifices and commitments that have to be made.
“And then you have that party-type event afterwards.”
Telford says Canada Day skips over the thoughtful and reflective part and gets straight to the party. He views it as an increasingly nationalistic event, a once-a-year thing where flags are waved, faces are painted and fireworks light up the night sky.
“And when you’re part of the club, part of the family, it feels great,” he observed. “But if you feel disconnected or you’re an outsider to it, it can feel kind of threatening. People who don’t feel like they’re part of the nation could feel uncomfortable about that.”
What’s happened in Kamloops is forcing people to re-think July 1 and it has the potential to be a catalyst for real change.
Where cities like Victoria have cancelled Canada Day ceremonies, Telford said “the message needs to be followed up on and it needs to be clearly articulated why.”
Where Canada Day celebrations do happen, he hopes politicians and performers ask people to take a minute to think about the issues we’re dealing with critically and reflectively.
“What’s happening could be a catalyst (for change) in the short term,” Telford said. “But whether that’s true in the long term remains to be seen.”