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A Canadian flag flies at half-mast on the West Block of Parliament Hill in Ottawa on June 2, 2021, in recognition of the discovery of children's remains at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Michaëlle Jean was governor-general of Canada, UNESCO special envoy for Haiti and secretary-general of La Francophonie.

Many Canadians are having trouble breathing normally this year. The spirit of celebration is deflated.

From the lasting consequences of the coronavirus attack on our individual and collective lungs, to the smothering heat of the current climate crisis, to the brutal knee of systemic racism on the neck of too many lives, along with the weight of a thousand unmarked graves of children – testament to the unspeakable suffering of our Indigenous sisters and brothers and the suffocating guilt that comes with a growing awareness of our genocidal history – the year 2021 will mark a turning point for Canada Day.

Now more than ever, we need to share the meaning of our collective history and the importance of uniting our efforts.

“When the present doesn’t recognize the wrongs of the past, the future takes its revenge.”

These were the words I chose 12 years ago to address survivors of the Indian residential schools, their children and grandchildren, and all Canadians when, as governor-general, I launched the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“For that reason,” I said, “we must never, never turn away from the opportunity of confronting history together – the opportunity to right a historical wrong.”

Today, Canadians are called to recognize, atone for and heal in tangible ways from the cruelty of a system that snatched young Indigenous children from their parents and their communities. They were subjected to the worst forms of cultural, institutional, psychological, physical and sexual abuse, and buried, often by other child victims, behind the most violent barrage of deathly silence.

While we uncover unmarked burial sites full of children, and eradicated their language, culture and heritage, what is there for Canada to celebrate?

We must recognize and share the unspeakable suffering of the missing and the unfathomable grief of those who mourn them. We must feel the sting of the guilt that all of this was allowed to happen, in a systemic way, with the abhorrent complicity of the federal, provincial, municipal governments and the churches, for more than a century, right up to the 1990s. We have looked the other way and have remained deaf to the constant pleas of the families.

This is not an Indigenous issue; it is an issue that concerns us all, especially on this day.

Every country’s history is complex and steeped in suffering. Canada does not escape that reality.

Much more than truth-telling is required. History has caught up with us with the most abominable facts. The time has come to recognize and fully confront the devastating effects this system has had in crushing lives. Its intergenerational consequences are still being felt today: violence and scorn heaped on Indigenous populations, the extreme poverty and difficult living conditions, the staggering number of school dropouts and suicides among the young.

To move forward together, one fundamental responsibility is incumbent upon us: the duty to remember. No question, no decision, no choice, no public policy should evade this responsibility. In knowing and understanding where we come from, we will then be able to chart the course we wish to take together.

In the midst of the trials and tribulations of this year’s pandemic, voices came from the far reaches of the most marginalized. Voices with clear demands were raised to create a country as good as it is beautiful, a country to celebrate as a land of opportunity. These voices have spoken forcefully about the urgent need to rethink our ways and build a society based on greater justice, equity, recognition and accountability. Systemic racism is the product of the very history of domination, degradation and total dispossession that has plagued Canada for centuries, and whose stigma is still painfully felt by Indigenous peoples and Black communities. For this reason, eradicating systemic racism has become an inescapable requirement for the country we want to be.

It has to matter to us all and the responsibility to act has to be shared by all, inclusively. This call I make with deep knowledge. For 10 years now, the Michaëlle Jean Foundation has been working to open up spaces for debate and dialogue across the country so that all voices can be heard, especially those of young Canadians who are excluded and marginalized, because we know they speak with courage and build innovative solutions through grassroots initiatives.

This Canada Day calls for the courage to take urgent action. Let us work now toward the day when we can breathe again in the joy of true recognition

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