Warning: The following report contains descriptions of genocide and violence committed against Indigenous children and communities. If you require support, the National Indian Residential School Crisis Line can be reached 24 hours a day by calling 1-866-925-4419.
As Canada Day approaches this Thursday, communities across the country continue to mourn ongoing discoveries at former residential school sites.
The Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan announced last Thursday it had found 751 unmarked graves near the site of the Marieval Indian Residential School. Earlier, 215 children were found buried at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
Hundreds more bodies have been found at similar sites across Canada. As Indigenous governments continue to examine former sites, the number is expected to grow.
In the NWT, where the trauma and impacts of residential school reverberate strongly, the concept of celebrating Canada is being questioned.
When Rosaline Landry, a resident of Fort Providence, heard about the discovery in Saskatchewan, she decided not to celebrate on July 1. Instead, she said, she and her family will wear orange to honour the children lost.
“My heart was really sad for those babies,” she said.
Landry has family members who went through the residential school system, including her grandmother.
“Every time I go visit, she tells me about the old Mission,” she said, “and every time she tells me stuff about the old Mission, she cries.”
Kyla LeSage, a Yellowknife resident, is Vuntut Gwich’in and Anishinaabekwe and an intergenerational survivor of the system.
“I didn’t grow up with my culture,” LeSage said. “I didn’t grow up with my language because of the residential school system, and because of Canada, and all that they’ve done to remove me from my own territory.
“Why do we celebrate a country that has been responsible for oppression and violence against Indigenous bodies, Indigenous land, Indigenous knowledge, and our Indigenous children?”
Morgan Tsetta, a Yellowknives Dene photographer, filmmaker, Tik Tok creator, and activist, called news of the discoveries “incredibly traumatizing and triggering.”
“We know all of those bodies are there,” Tsetta said. “Local First Nations have been telling their local authorities, their governments, the federal government, that there are bodies here. We’ve been asking for excavations for years.
“They just simply do not prioritize that.”
To channel some of her grief and trauma, Tsetta has been using her social media platforms to educate people about the residential school system, the continued colonization experienced by Indigenous people, and why she does not celebrate the founding of Confederation every July 1.
“It’s really hard to vocalize any dissent or distaste of Canada whilst living in Canada, because people feel so strongly about their patriotism for this country,” she said.
“I was never really vocal in why I did not celebrate it. It just didn’t seem right to celebrate this country, knowing what goes on in Indigenous communities, and just the fact that so much is constantly ignored – specifically from the federal government – in regard to promises made to Indigenous communities.”
Events cancelled, changed
Across the NWT, communities scrapped Canada Day celebrations to focus instead on honouring the children found and reflect on the impacts of colonization.
The Yellowknife Rotary Club announced on Saturday it was cancelling its annual Canada Day parade “out of respect for the Indigenous community.”
The Yellowknives Dene First Nation and City of Yellowknife will instead host prayers, drum dancing, speeches, and a feeding of the fire ceremony at Somba K’e Civic Plaza on Thursday. A march will be held that day from the Ruth Inch Memorial Pool to the plaza.
Inuvik will host a drive-through barbecue, family trivia, scavenger hunt, and a movie night among other activities. Like its northern neighbours, the town is asking residents to wear orange.
There will be a gathering outside the Land Corporation office in Norman Wells on Wednesday at 11am to honour former residential school students and those who died with drumming, prayer, and a feast.
The Village of Fort Simpson cancelled its Canada Day events and said it “will instead support local, Indigenous activities to educate, reflect upon, and address the harmful legacy of the residential school system.”
The Kátł’odeeche First Nation will host a fire-feeding ceremony at the former residential school site in the Old Village at 1:23pm on Thursday.
The Town of Hay River, which officially cancelled its Canada Day celebrations on Tuesday, encouraged residents to attend that event.
Chief April Martel said: “We want to recognize that there’s a lot of trauma. There’s a lot of PTSD, there’s lot of things that are coming up, and a lot of triggers.
“We want to do a ceremony to pray for everyone all across Canada, all the families, and the deceased, and the babies … more will be found, we know that. We’re preparing ourselves, trying to get more healing workshops.”
Martel said the First Nation is in the process of cleaning up the local graveyard in preparation for a potential search of the former school site.
While there is no firm plan to search the grounds, Martel said she will speak with the Dene Nation and GNWT to see what can be done, and consult Elders before taking action.