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As a diversity and inclusion consultant and Indigenous person based in Abbotsford, B.C. I’ve been asked a lot about what Canadians should be doing about Canada Day this year. I’ve spent the last 19 years of my career working with issues relating to and alongside Indian Residential Schools survivors. A holiday celebrating colonization is difficult most years, but this year is particularly tough in light of the hundreds of children that have been found buried at residential schools. It is a time of great mourning for the Indigenous community and Canada Day celebrations in many cities, in the absence of time to arrange something more suitable under the circumstances, have been cancelled. Navigating conversations around Canada Day with our kids, both non-Indigenous and Indigenous can be a challenge. Here are my thoughts on how to handle these discussions.
Kids may not understand why their friends and families are not celebrating Canada Day this year the way they normally do. They also may be becoming aware that not everyone celebrates Canada Day to begin with. They might have heard people talking about cancelling Canada Day celebrations this year and feel sad and disappointed.
Start with explaining the feelings that are happening for Indigenous people and allies: sadness, grief, loss, and anger. Help them put themselves in their friends’ shoes by asking them how they might feel about celebrating a day that represents colonization and a celebration of a country where they don’t feel safe or that they feel has let them down.
Have a conversation within your family about what Canada Day means to you and what you are celebrating. Maybe your family is new to Canada and you are finding new opportunities here, maybe your family came to Canada to escape persecution, maybe there is a part of Canadian history you are particularly proud of or maybe there is something you feel really grateful for. Instead of just going through the motions of putting up decorations, talk about what you’re celebrating and if it still makes sense to you.
When you talk about what has happened in the past and what’s happening right now, think about ways you can involve your kids in giving back. Talk about the things that you enjoy that other people don’t and do some problem solving around what activities you can engage in to address that—like writing letters to politicians to remind them to act on the calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, returning pop cans for deposits to donate funds to support residential school survivors or signing petitions that advocate for change. Some people are choosing to put up orange Every Child Matter signs instead of Canadian flags on Canada Day. Find a way for your family to get involved and do something tangible that supports people already doing this work and lets you help without getting in the way or intruding on anyone’s grief.
The Honourable Justice Murray Sinclair, the chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which investigated residential school atrocities, says, “Education got us into this mess and education will get us out of it.” Read age-appropriate books, watch videos and listen to music to learn about Indigenous people and the challenges they face. Participate in local cultural events open to the public as a family for experiential learning.
Introduce your kids not just to “the Indigenous perspective” but help them understand that there are so many different ways to be Indigenous and so many different experiences. Indigenous people are not all the same and the way residential schools have impacted them looks different in every family.
When you’re talking about Indigenous people and the reasons behind Canada Day celebrations being controversial, be mindful not to present the experiences of Indigenous people as being one-dimensional. While there is great injustice and pain, there is also joy and reasons to hope.
Indigenous cultures are resilient and vibrant and have survived despite attempts to stamp them out. Efforts to preserve, promote and celebrate the beauty of these cultures are underway every day. While all the losses are very sad, we also celebrate that Indigenous people and their cultures are still here. While we can learn about them in museums and libraries, culture is very much alive and not an artifact. This is a good time to attend vigils and awareness events in your community.
Whether you choose to celebrate Canada Day, cancel it entirely or spend it in reflection and action, make a conscious decision about how to spend the day and share that with your kids. It’s so important to talk about why we do what we do, why others might not and what it all means so kids understand what’s happening in the world around them.
The residential school system was built on racism, violence and a lack of empathy or appreciation for other cultures. One of the most powerful ways we can resist that spirit is to teach our kids to be anti-racist, accepting and empathetic people who appreciate those who are different from them. The past and some of the present is shameful, but in raising empathetic and aware children, Canadian parents can raise a generation that Canada will be so proud of.
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