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Lorraine Whitman.Native Women’s Association of Canada

Lorraine Whitman is the president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC).

Shortly after unmarked graves were found at the former residential school in Kamloops, reporters began phoning to ask if the Native Women’s Association supported the call to cancel Canada Day.

We could not give them the answer they were looking for. Because it’s complicated.

For many Indigenous women, Canada Day has never been a cause for celebration. Why would we celebrate colonization and oppression? Why would we celebrate the arrival in our lands of colonizers who brought death and disease, who stripped us of our culture and of our very way of life, who forced us to live on tiny reserves and signed treaties with us they never intended to uphold?

We are asking ourselves: What is so different this year that we would call upon the descendants of those colonizers to cancel their Canada Day?

Yes, many of us wept after receiving the news from Kamloops, from the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan, then this week from Cranbrook, B.C. Of course we were bereft at the thought of all those children dying alone, far from their families, in institutions created for assimilation where abuse and deadly illness were rampant. And yes, the sheer numbers of burials at those schools turned our stomachs.

NWAC has called for the sites of all former Indian residential schools to be declared crime scenes. The families of those children deserve to know how they died and there must be justice. Failing to provide the necessaries of life is a crime, and they should be investigated as such.

But the horrors of the schools are not news to Indigenous women. We lived at those institutions. We suffered through the beatings and the sexual abuse. We saw our friends and our siblings die of neglect. We carry the scars of those places on our bodies, and in our minds, and in our souls.

Some of us who survived have been talking about those experiences for a very long time. Some made the difficult choice to appear before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and to provide public testimony about what was done to us because we knew it was important to lift the veil on those places of torture and death.

The TRC found that, in some of the schools, almost 50 per cent of the students died before graduation. The TRC also said thousands of bodies would be found at the school sites.

Many Canadians flinched when the TRC commissioners declared the residential schools were part of a cultural genocide being waged against us. Many of you shook your heads when the National Inquiry Into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls also found a genocide is being perpetrated as disproportionate numbers of Indigenous women are murdered or go missing.

But those findings merely put official words to what we have known for generations to be the truth.

NWAC did not call for the cancellation of Canada Day in 2015, when the report of the TRC was released. We did not call for its cancellation after the release of the final report of the National Inquiry.

To do so this year would suggest we have suddenly awoken to the reality of the oppression that we and our ancestors have lived with for generations.

Canadians have much to celebrate. Canada is a beautiful country. The decision made by your parents, or grandparents, or great-grandparents to immigrate here was a good one, for them and for their offspring.

We have not, to this point, begrudged you that celebration, even though your arrival here has been so devastating for us. And the fact that the discoveries of the unmarked graves alerted many of you to our suffering does not seem like reasonable justification for demanding that the fête be cancelled this year.

But if you have been so moved by the horrors endured by those children, our children, that you cannot bring yourselves to mark Canada Day in 2021 – that is, if you want to forgo the festivities as an acknowledgment of the genocide and of our pain – we will honour that choice.

Because that acknowledgment is the first step toward reconciliation. And reconciliation must happen before Indigenous women can join in on Canada Day celebrations.

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