Why Canada Day Isn’t Worth Celebrating (& Never Has Been)

Photo: Courtesy of Xinhua/Zou Zheng/Getty Images.
Stat holidays are what we refer to in this business as a great peg. Usually, Canada Day is used as an excuse to churn out easy content like “best barbecue recipes!” or “how to incorporate red and white into your summer lewks!” or “best Canada Day fireworks” roundups (the latter is a Refinery29 Canada post from 2019 — yeah, we’re guilty of this ignorance, too). In the past, settler-run Canadian media has relished the chance to turn national pride into clickbait and low-lift catchy segments that willfully ignore the harm this country has caused to Indigenous people. This year, the tone has shifted.
The op-eds and think pieces and calls to cancel Canada Day started last week, shortly after 751 unmarked graves were discovered near the former Marieval Indian Residential School in what’s now known as Saskatchewan. It was the fourth such site uncovered in the past month alone, a horror that has always been a part of Canadian history. But these recent revelations seem to be waking settlers up to the repulsive colonial roots from which this country was built. One that flag-waving white Canadians can no longer disregard in favour of a patriotic backyard hang.
The truth is, Canada Day has never been a day to celebrate. It’s a day of mourning and Indigenous people have been saying this for decades. But most mainstream media haven’t bothered to listen until now. Let that sink in: It took thousands of dead children — killed by white supremacy in the name of a cross and flag we still wave proudly — for non-Indigenous people and mainstream media to care about this country’s complicity in the genocide of the people whose land was ripped from them. Once more for the people in the back: This country was “founded” 154 years ago through the brutal colonization of Indigenous people.
That’s a fact, not up for debate. And it’s not just an “original sin” or an antiquated ideology rooted in the past, a forgotten history that settlers have the privilege to ignore every July 1 for a day off and a chance to score an invitation to a friend’s cottage for the long weekend. It’s deep-seated, systemic racism that continues to this day, every day — in hospitals, in schools, in courts, on Parliament Hill. Cancel Canada Day is happening because guilt has finally caught up to settlers, but the day should never have been anything other than a time to reflect on the country’s brutal history and present, and figure out how to do better.

These recent revelations seem to be waking settlers up to the repulsive colonial roots from which this country was built. One that flag-waving white Canadians can no longer disregard in favour of a patriotic backyard hang.

Calls to “do better” (aside from the fact that this phrase has been overused superficially in the past year so much that it’s been rendered almost meaningless) ring hollow when they come from the same people or outlets who still want to debate whether or not Canada is racist. After the chilling Islamophobic hate crime last month in which a London, ON man ran over the Afzaal family — not to mention that this terrorist attack happened in broad daylight — London politicians and citizens were clamouring to defend their city against declarations that it is a racist city, despite overwhelming evidence from its marginalized residents, history, and the fact that a family was killed during a walk.
But this is what Canada does. It hides behind its global “nice guy” reputation (in which “nice” is really just code for “white”) bolstered by our relatively decent healthcare system and a pretty boy prime minister (who the world is so quick to forget wore blackface — more than once). The hesitation for Canadians to admit that Canada is racist is just another way this country coasts on its “meanwhile in Canada” exceptionalism while ignoring the devastation being done in its backyard. “We are treated as if we are invisible, disposable, violable, as if we can take more of that hurt and trauma and carry on,” wrote Mohawk activist Katsi'tsakwas Ellen Gabriel in The Ricochet. “...It’s not just systemic racism that we must try to tackle together; we must expose and uproot the racist norm upon which this country was founded.”
The very function of racism is distraction, and to deny its existence is to allow it to continue. From now on, there should be no debate over whether Canada is a racist country. It is. Acknowledging that is the very first step, the absolute bare minimum. It may be uncomfortable for some people who have never experienced racism to admit that they are perpetrators of it — consciously or not — but white people, this is so not about you.
Also, and this is where normalizing nuance comes in, cancelling Canada Day is not about refusing to love where you live. You can be fond of your community, your city, and your country, but understand that the structure of this society in which we live is inherently racist. Two things can be true. As Mi’kmaw columnist and lawyer Dr. Pam Palmater wrote for Canadian Dimension: “Cancelling Canada Day fireworks and parades will not end Canada, nor will it erase our history. What it might do, however, is rewrite our future history so that we do not waste another 20 years looking the other way and hoping Indigenous pain and trauma will simply go away.”

Cancelling Canada Day fireworks and parades will not end Canada, nor will it erase our history. What it might do, however, is rewrite our future history.

DR. PAM PALMATER, Mi’kmaw columnist and lawyer
The reality of residential “schools'' will not go away. The appalling institutions, run by the Catholic Church for 160 years, stole hundreds of thousands of Indigenous children from their families, and led to intergenerational trauma and loss (the Vatican has yet to apologize for these institutions, the last of which closed just 25 years ago in the 1990s) that those communities are still dealing with today. That’s in addition to the Sixties Scoop, the thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, and the racist mistreatment Indigenous people are subjected to every day.
The structural inequalities that plague this country have been on full display in the past year. There are the violent attacks on hijab-wearing women in Canadian cities and so many other horrific examples of Islamophobia. There is the over-policing of Black people and rampant anti-Black racism festering in every fibre of this country. Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia against Palestinians has climbed in recent months. The COVID-19 pandemic spurred a series of anti-Asian racism and hate crimes. 2020 led to a global “racial reckoning” that resulted in people marching in the streets to say, enough.
But that doesn’t sound very Canadian, does it? We’re supposed to be quiet, polite, and living in a post-racial utopia where riots and reckonings aren’t necessary — at least according to certain (read: white) populations. So much of the “good Canadian” or “nice Canadian” trope is rooted in whiteness, that insidious brand of white fragility that claims colourblindedness, which allows white people to smugly pat themselves on the back for being better than, say, the United States. Canadians watched the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, horrified, but confident that that could never, would never, happen here. Don’t forget that Gavin McInnis, the founder of the alt-right extremist group Proud Boys, who were there that day, is Canadian. (In the '90s, McInnes co-created Vice, one of Refinery29’s sister brands, with which he no longer has any association.) Simultaneously, there were also mini MAGA protests in Canadian cities. We are all complicit when we don’t recognize these dangerous realities.
So, what happens after we cancel Canada Day 2021? Do we go back to ignoring the other days of the year that should be honoured more than Canada Day and aren’t? Like Indigenous Peoples Day, which is about recognizing and celebrating the traditions of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people. Or Emancipation Day, which acknowledges the history of slavery in Canada, but is also a day about progress and recognizing the systems in place that are still oppressing BIPOC people.
As two settlers, a Black woman and a white woman, writing this, we know it’s imperative to defer to the Indigenous community — that’s who we should be centering today and moving forward. As settlers, we also need to do our part to make sure the government enacts the 94 recommendations from the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). That starts now. Sure, #CancelCanadaDay may just be a trendy hashtag and a performative thing to post on Instagram, but if our entire country skips the fireworks this year, lowers their Canadian flags and wears orange instead (inspired by residential school survivor Phyllis Webstad who started Orange Shirt Day in 2013), the government may have to commit to more than a paltry $27 million to uncover the bodies at residential schools; to compensate the victims of residential schools and their families; and to listen to Indigenous people about how to make this country safer for them to live on their own land long after the hashtag dies down and the guilt has subsided.
We don’t need a peg to push for reconciliation or reparations and to remember that if this country doesn’t drastically change, there’s nothing to be proud of.
The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line is available 24-hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of Indian Residential Schools. Support is available at 1-866-925-4419.
The Refinery29 Canada team acknowledges that we are settlers on the land now known as Canada. We stand in solidarity and support of Indigenous people and we recognize that all of us have an ongoing part to play in reconciliation. We thank the Indigenous community for allowing us to live and work on their land.

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