I used to look forward to the Canada Day parade. I would bring a folding chair and wave a flimsy paper flag on the side of the road in my hometown of Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, watching each float, mounted on the back of a semi-truck, pass me by. At the time, it felt representative of the beautifully diverse, rich and colorful cultures Canada is often celebrated for. 

That was before I knew what Canada was really founded on. As I write, the whole world is turning its attention to unprecedented efforts unfolding across the country: efforts to locate unmarked graves of the yet to be known number of children who died in the horrific Indian Residential School System that was the hallmark of Canadian colonialism. At the time of writing, the number of discovered children’s remains found exceeds 1,000, discovered on the grounds of just three of the 130 government-listed institutions that existed in Canada until 1996. 

As an Indigenous person and intergenerational survivor of residential schools, I didn’t know the history of what happened to my grandparents and my mother during their time in that system until I was an adult. It was kept hidden because of the pain it caused my family.

residential schools
A memorial on the south steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery with 215 pairs of children’s shoes to honor the children whose remains had been found. Similar memorials are appearing in many Canadian communities. Credit: Ted McGrath / Flickr

This year, I am not alone in questioning the celebration of the national holiday. Now, millions of people across Canada are trading in red and white for the color orange on July 1st. The unprecedented #CancelCanadaDay campaign is a mass recognition of the harms Indigenous children and families suffered during the 165-year residential school reign of terror that underpinned the creation of the country. 

Orange Shirt Day — typically observed on September 30 — began in 2013, after Phyllis (Jack) Webstad shared her story of survival as a residential school student at the age of six in the 1970s. When she arrived at the school, she was instantly stripped of her belongings, as most children were, including a brand new orange shirt, gifted to her by her grandmother. The orange T-shirt has come to represent all that Indigenous children endured in the residential school system.

Webstad’s experience, like thousands of others’, was not about learning. The schools — which children were long forced to attend by the Canadian government, often forcibly removed from their families by the national police — were places where children were sexually, emotionally, physically and spiritually abused. Where sickness flourished. Where children were intentionally and systematically separated from their culture and language. 

These inflictions often led to children’s deaths. Many also died trying to run away.

Often in Indigenous communities, the mourning of a loved one takes place over an extended period of time where a fire is kept burning day and night. At the rate that children’s graves are being uncovered, that fire will not be put out for at least as long as Canada has been a country. 

The Doctrine of Discovery

The soil that buried these children was claimed by the British Colonies under something called the Doctrine of Discovery, a series of decrees dating back to the 1100s establishing spiritual, political and legal justification for colonization and seizure of lands not inhabited by Christians. Non-Christians were said to be non-human, or animal. This notion was used by religious groups to justify land grabs that occurred across all of Africa, Asia, Australia, New Zealand and the Americas — including the United States — despite the millions of Indigenous Peoples occupying those lands. If an explorer claimed to have discovered land in the name of a religion, the land was said to be terra nullius —  “the land of no one.” In other words, void of human life. 

Heinous as the doctrine was then, it has never been formally repealed. It was the basis of Canada’s Indian Act, which still exists today, and built the foundation of much of the country’s common law. 

The name Canada comes from the Haudenosaunee word Kanata, meaning “village” or “community.”

The first treaty ever made in Canada is recognized by many First Nations, but not by the Canadian government. Twenty-four Indigenous Nation leaders showed up at the edge of Niagara Falls in 1764 to discuss peace with the English. Those leaders agreed to let down their guard and accept the promises that were made in the treaty: that trade relations would continue, and that the entire interior of Canada would be known as “Indian Country” as referenced in the Royal Proclamation of 1763.

wampum belt
The Covenant Chain Wampum presented by Sir William Johnson to the assembled Nations at the conclusion of the Council of Niagara in 1764. This replica was commissioned by Nathan Tidridge and created by Ken Maracle of the Seneca Nation. Credit: Wikipedia

The Niagara Treaty was recorded in intricate beadwork on nearly 100 exchanged belts called Wampums. Two figures on the Wampum belts holding hands symbolized friendship and alliance. But when the full impact of the Royal Proclamation came into effect, King George III claimed ultimate dominion over the entire region of Canada, turning his back on the promises of the Treaty. To this day, that claim remains arguable in the courts that are trying to determine Indigenous and Crown titles.

“A place where we acknowledge the same stories”

Change is happening in Canada, in large part due to the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) — an official body established by the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history. The TRC travelled the country for six years, between 2007 and 2015, hearing testimonies from over 6,500 witnesses of the residential school system and its intergenerational impacts. At its conclusion, the TRC issued a final report including 94 Calls to Action to Canadian institutions to action reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples. Slowly, they are being put into effect. 

This National Indigenous Peoples Day for example, Canada made changes to its Oath of Citizenship. The Oath now refers to the rights of Indigenous Peoples, fulfilling Canada’s commitment to the TRC’s Call to Action number 94. The Oath recognizes Indigenous rights found in section 35 of the Canadian Constitution Act, 1982, which acknowledges that Indigenous Peoples occupied North America since time immemorial — a stark contrast to the Doctrine of Discovery. As new Canadians recite the Oath, they are asked to make a personal commitment to observe the rights of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. It is meant to educate newcomers about their role in reconciliation. 

Indigenous people can also now reclaim their traditional names on passports and other documents, fulfilling TRC Call to Action number 17.