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Country reckons with horrific legacy of residential schools on Canada Day

OTTAWA — Canadians traded in the traditional red-and-white garb for Canada Day, donning orange, building memorials and taking part in events as part of a national reckoning with the horrific legacy of residential schools on Indigenous Peoples.

OTTAWA — Canadians traded in the traditional red-and-white garb for Canada Day, donning orange, building memorials and taking part in events as part of a national reckoning with the horrific legacy of residential schools on Indigenous Peoples.

Many of the special events normally associated with Canada Day were either cancelled or scaled back, after hundreds of unmarked graves were found at residential school sites in British Columbia and Saskatchewan.

Cowessess First Nation last week said that ground-penetrating radar detected 751 unmarked graves at the former Marieval Indian Residential School, not long after the discovery of what are believed to be the remains of 215 children in Kamloops, B.C.

And then on Wednesday, the Lower Kootenay Band said a search using ground-penetrating radar had found 182 human remains in unmarked graves at a site close to a former residential school in Cranbrook, B.C.

In his Canada Day message, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the horrific findings at the site of former residential schools have "rightfully pressed us to reflect on our country's historical failures" and injustices that still exist for many.

"While we can't change the past, we must be resolute in confronting these truths in order to chart a new and better path forward. Together, we have a long way to go to make things right with Indigenous Peoples," said Trudeau, who spent his day with his family.

Chants of, "No pride in genocide," echoed from orange-clad crowds of about 200 in the rain in St. John's, N.L., to the estimated 3,000 who marched on Parliament Hill where there was a makeshift memorial of shoes, signifying the young lives lost. 

In Montreal, marchers held banners that read "bring our children home," those in Edmonton and elsewhere had shirts that read "Every Child Matters," and the flag atop the Peace Tower was at half-mast to honour the Indigenous children who died in residential schools.

"It's not like we're asking for every single Canada Day to be taken away," said Sheena Ballantyne, who was taking part in a march in Edmonton. "It's one day out of the year to honour these babies that were found that never went home."

And in downtown Halifax, a group of 15 read from the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission about the history and legacy of residential schools, and  actions that could move reconciliation forward. 

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde used his Canada Day message to call for transformational change in the lives of Indigenous Peoples, including justice for residential school survivors and clean drinking water and healthy homes in Indigenous communities.

"There is an opportunity for all levels of government to act on First Nations' priorities,"  Bellegarde said in a video message. "There is a strong foundation for continued progress, but there remains much more work ahead of all of us. We cannot lose the momentum."

New polling suggests Canadians are rethinking the dominant narrative of European settlers discovering Canada making way for Indigenous Peoples being the First Peoples of the land. Polling from firm Leger and the Association for Canadian Studies found that one in every two respondents said Indigenous Peoples "discovered Canada," while one-in-three said it was Jacques Cartier.

The same poll found about six in 10 respondents held a positive view of Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada's first prime minister, whose likeness has been removed from various public displays over his role in setting up the residential school system.

"People are aware of what's going on, clearly, about the horrible tragedy about residential schools," association president Jack Jedwab said of the results. "But I don't think that as many people as we think are making the connection to Sir John A. Macdonald."

The survey of 1,542 Canadians in an online panel took place between June 18 and 20, but can't be assigned a margin of error because online panels aren’t considered truly random samples.

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole, in a Canada Day statement, said reconciliation must be a central focus for the future, but the work starts by building up all people in the country, not by tearing Canada down.

"We can celebrate the country that we are and the one we aspire to be," he said.

As marchers made their way through downtown Ottawa, they passed by a demonstration at the Supreme Court of Canada building of about 300 people, by police estimates, who at times decried the cancelations of Canada Day celebrations and the public health restrictions, lockdowns and mask mandates that have accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The same sentiments spurred protestors in Calgary to swarm and hurtle profanities at Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro, his wife and two young boys at the end of a Canada Day parade, and others heckling of Premier Jason Kenney as he gave a brief speech thanking Albertans for getting vaccinated against COVID-19.

Speaking to the CBC during a visit to an Ottawa farmers' market, Trudeau said he had spoken with people unsure about getting a vaccine who then realized they could do it to help their neighbours and communities come out from the pandemic.

"A lot of Canadians are understanding that this is the path forward," Trudeau said in the interview. "But in the meantime, it's a lot of elbow bumps, it's still facemasks, it's being careful as we're able to do more and more things."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 1, 2021.

- With files from Sarah Smellie in Halifax, Morgan Lowrie in Montreal, Rob Drinkwater in Edmonton, and Bill Graveland in Calgary.

Jordan Press, The Canadian Press