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Victoria cancels Canada Day broadcast as First Nations mourn residential school deaths

Victoria is cancelling its Canada Day broadcast and instead planning to work with the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations to create an alternative event at a later date, amid nationwide calls to cancel July 1 celebrations.
Flags at half-mast at the Fairmont Empress Hotel and B.C. legislature after the discover of unmarked graves of 215 children at the site of the Kamloops Residential School. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

Victoria is cancelling its Canada Day broadcast and instead planning to work with the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations to create an alternative event at a later date, amid nationwide calls to cancel July 1 celebrations.

Councillors voted unanimously to cancel a planned one-hour Canada Day broadcast after long-standing Lekwungen participants told city staff last week they would not take part this year in light of the discovery of unmarked graves at a former Kamloops residential school.

The discovery has reopened trauma for residential school survivors who suffered physical and sexual abuse, malnourishment and sometimes starvation at the government-sponsored institutions, which took generations of Indigenous children from their families in an effort to strip them of their language and culture.

Lyla Dick, a lead singer for the Lək̓ʷəŋən Traditional Dancers, said the group withdrew from the planned broadcast out of respect for her mother, a residential school survivor and the “backbone” of the dance group, and all those who attended the schools. Dick said her uncle, who attended the Kamloops Indian Residential School, has been hit particularly hard by the discovery.

“Because what’s happening with our survivors right now is the years of suppressing all those memories, it’s like the wounds have opened back up,” she said.

The group was not trying to persuade the city to cancel the Canada Day broadcast by withdrawing, but Dick said she appreciates the council’s gesture.

“They’re grieving along with us in their shock of knowing what’s happened. In our communities, we’ve known all along that there was losses throughout the years. I remember my grandpa hearing of his sister being pushed out the window,” she said. “I remember stories of my mom’s brother, his punishment in Kuper Island. And mum today just told me about the punishments my dad received when he was in [residential school]. So it’s been known all these years, but not really openly talked about.”

Dick said she would be interested in working with the city on a future broadcast, and that the dance group, which has participated in Canada Day celebrations for about a decade, plans to rejoin next year.

Coun. Charlayne Thornton-Joe, who has helped to organize Canada Day celebrations for the past two decades, noted July 1 celebrations in the city started as an opportunity for immigrants to show their pride in calling Canada home.

Helps stressed that while the city is no longer planning a virtual Canada Day event this year, residents can still hold their own celebrations.

“Neighbours can still gather in COVID -friendly block parties, put out Canadian flags. People in Victoria and across the country can obviously do whatever they want on July the 1st,” she said.

The discovery in Kamloops has renewed focus on reconciliation across the country, and has led to the toppling or removal of statues commemorating historical figures in other cities who shaped a residential-school system that resulted in inter-generational trauma that continues to affect Indigenous communities. The finding has also revived calls to cancel Canada Day events.

Idle No More, a group formed in 2012 to advocate for Indigenous rights, is encouraging people to disrupt Canada Day celebrations with protests. Events are planned in Vancouver, Edmonton and Winnipeg.

“The recent discovery at Kamloops residential school has reminded us that Canada remains a country that has built its foundation on the erasure and genocide of Indigenous nations, including children. We refuse to sit idle while Canada’s violent history is celebrated,” the group’s website says.

Ellis Ross, a Liberal MLA representing Skeena in northwestern B.C. and former chief councillor of the Haisla Nation, has opposed calls to cancel July 1 celebrations.

“Can you imagine how significant it would be for First Nations and non-First Nations to be together on this day. We need this as part of our collective healing,” Ross tweeted.

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