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Canada Day muted as country reckons with treatment of Indigenous, other minorities; forest fire guts town as heatwave continues

Ottawa, Canada

Multiple cities scrapped Canada Day celebrations on Thursday after the discovery of hundreds of remains of children at former Indigenous schools sparked a reckoning with the country’s colonial past. 

Calls to scale back or cancel celebrations snowballed after, beginning in May, almost 1,000 unmarked graves were found at former so-called residential schools in British Columbia and Saskatchewan, that were mainly run by the Catholic Church and funded by the government.

Canada British Columbia former Kamloops Indian Residential School memorial

A memorial on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School is seen in Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada, on 5th June.  PICTURE: Reuters/Jennifer Gauthier/File photo.

Traditionally the holiday is celebrated with backyard barbecues and fireworks much like 4th July in the United States, however this year Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the day would be “a time for reflection.” 

A #CancelCanadaDay march in Canada’s capital, Ottawa, turned into a sea of orange as thousands rallied wearing orange shirts to honour the victims and survivors of Canada’s residential school system. They carried a large banner that read, “No pride in genocide.”


A wildfire that began after three days of record-breaking temperatures has destroyed most of the small western Canadian town of Lytton and damaged a nearby hydro power station, a local politician said on Thursday.

Lytton, in central British Columbia, was evacuated a day earlier. This week it broke Canada’s all-time hottest temperature record three times. 

Officials braced for more sizzling weather and the threat of more wildfires from a deadly heat wave that also ravaged the US Northwest with record-high temperatures.

“The town has sustained structural damage and 90 [per cent] of the village is burned, including the centre of the town,” Brad Vis, a Member of Parliament for Mission-Matsqui-Fraser Canyon, said in a Facebook post.

He said the fire also caused extensive damage to BC Hydro stations and highways, limiting access to Lytton by road.

Amateur video footage showed residents scrambling to get out of town in their cars as fires burned down trees and some structures. The fire spread so swiftly that people were forced to leave behind their belongings and pets.

Lytton Mayor Jan Polderman ordered everyone in the town of 250 to vacate late on Wednesday.

“It’s dire. The whole town is on fire,” Polderman told the CBC. “It took, like, a whole 15 minutes from the first sign of smoke to, all of a sudden, there being fire everywhere.”

Residents of another 87 properties north of Lytton were also ordered to leave on Wednesday. 

Lytton set a record of 49.6 degrees Celsius on Tuesday. The previous high in Canada, known for brutally cold winters, was 45 degrees Celsius, set in Saskatchewan in 1937.

On Wednesday, strong winds gusting up to 71 kph were recorded in the area, further flaming the fires.

In British Columbia, at least 486 sudden deaths were reported over five days to Wednesday, nearly three times the usual number that would occur in the province over that period, the BC Coroners Service said on Wednesday.

– DENNY THOMAS, Toronto, Canada/Reuters

The residential schools forcibly separated Indigenous children from their families, in what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015 called “cultural genocide”.

Hundreds of people, likewise in orange shirts, also marched through downtown Toronto, Canada’s financial capital, in support of the Indigenous children. Indigenous performer Danielle Migwans performed a healing dance during the march.

Orange has come to symbolise the acknowledgment of the victims of the country’s residential school system.

Vigils and rallies were held across other parts of the country.

“Canada is having a reckoning with its history,” said Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, a University of Toronto sociology professor who studies race, crime and criminal justice. 

“I don’t think we can celebrate this country for what it is without recognising this country for what it isn’t: a utopia and a bastion of equality and freedom and equal opportunity for all members of society,” he said.

Canada’s reputation for tolerance was built on its efforts, starting in the 1970s, to create a multicultural society. But data shows inequalities abound both for Indigenous communities and among visible minorities.

In his Canada Day message, Trudeau said the discoveries of the remains of hundreds of children at former residential schools “have rightfully pressed us to reflect on our country’s historical failures,” and the injustices that still exist for indigenous peoples and many others in Canada.

“This Canada Day, let’s recommit to learning from and listening to each other so we can break down the barriers that divide us, rectify the injustices of our past, and build a more fair and equitable society for everyone.”

Stark disparities
Indigenous people, who make up less than five per cent of the population, face higher levels of poverty and violence and shorter life expectancies.

The unemployment rate for visible minorities, who make up more than 20 per cent of the total population, was 11.4 per cent in May compared with seven per cent for whites, according to Statistics Canada. In 2020, the unemployment rate for Indigenous people in Ontario was 12.5 per cent compared with 9.5 per cent for non-Indigenous people.

Some 30 per cent of visible minorities and Indigenous peoples feel treated like outsiders in their own country, according to an Angus Reid Institute poll on diversity and racism published on 21st June. 

The discovery of the remains and a deadly attack on a Muslim family in June that killed three generations of members has led to soul searching in Canada about the country’s oft-touted reputation for tolerance. The suspect is accused of murder and domestic terrorism.

Hate crimes against Muslims rose nine per cent to 181 in 2019, according to the latest data by StatCan. Some 36 per cent of Indigenous people and 42 per cent of visible minorities said Canada is a racist country, according to the Angus Reid survey.

A number of Muslim women who wear hijabs have also been attacked in Alberta in recent weeks, while in Quebec a law banning public servants from wearing the hijab is facing legal challenges, and critics have called the measure a form of institutionalised racism.

New Democrat lawmaker Mumilaaq Qaqqaq, who is Inuk, said she felt unsafe in the House of Commons as an Indigenous woman, and last month announced she would not be running for re-election.   

“I don’t think there’s any reason for celebration [on Canada Day],” Qaqqaq said.

–  Additional reporting by JULIE GORDON.


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