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Municipalities and organizations across Canada decided against holding special events this year, as Canadians were asked to reflect on the history of residential schools

Jane Kigutaq, a kindergarten teacher from Arctic Bay now living in Ottawa, protests on Parliament Hill at a 'Cancel Canada Day' event in response to the discovery of unmarked Indigenous graves at residential schools.PATRICK DOYLE/The Canadian Press

Canada Day celebrations were scaled back and mostly virtual this year, as Canadians were asked to reflect on the history of residential schools, and the remaining pandemic restrictions prevented large gatherings for a second year in a row.

The Canadian Heritage department added an increased focus on Indigenous issues to its Thursday evening virtual program showcasing Canadian artists, which replaced the annual concert that normally takes place on the Parliament Hill lawn in front of massive crowds.

Municipalities and organizations across Canada decided against holding special events this year. Several First Nations communities announced plans to replace fireworks with candlelight vigils, after three communities recently announced the discovery of unmarked burial sites connected to former residential schools.

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Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan last week said that ground-penetrating radar detected 751 unmarked graves at the former Marieval Indian Residential School, not long after the announcement that the remains of 215 children were discovered in Kamloops.

People march for residential school children during an anti-Canada Day rally in Edmonton.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

And then on Wednesday, it was announced that a search using ground-penetrating radar had found 182 human remains in unmarked graves at a site close to a former residential school outside Cranbrook, B.C.

An estimated 3,000 people marched on Parliament Hill on Thursday, where there was a makeshift memorial of shoes to signify the young lives lost. The flag atop the Peace Tower was also at half-mast in commemoration.

There were protests across the country. In Montreal, marchers held banners that read “bring our children home,” while those in Edmonton and elsewhere had shirts that read “Every Child Matters.” In St. John’s, an orange-clad crowd of about 200 gathered in the rain.

“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.”

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.

Members of the Sipekne’katik First Nation pay their respects to the survivors and victims of the residential school system in Shubenacadie, N.S.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife, Sophie, normally spend part of Canada Day rallying the Parliament Hill crowds, but they opted instead for a low-key tour of the Parkdale farmers’ market just west of downtown. The couple and their three children spent nearly 90 minutes chatting with vendors, petting dogs and bumping elbows in lieu of handshakes.

The exchanges were a noteworthy sign of a semblance of normality as pandemic restrictions ease gradually. Scenes of politicians working small crowds have largely been on hiatus for the past year and a half because of COVID-19.

“Canada Day is a time for reflection and a time for celebration of many aspects of this country, but also recognizing that there are a lot of Canadians, particularly Indigenous peoples, who don’t feel like celebrating,” Mr. Trudeau said in an interview with CBC on Thursday at the farmers’ market.

The Prime Minister said the recent discovery of unmarked graves at the sites of former residential schools adds to the intergenerational trauma caused by Canada’s efforts to assimilate the Indigenous population and eradicate their culture and languages.

“We have to respect and have room for this reflection on how we can and must be an even better country moving forward,” he said.

Hoop dancer Emilee Ann, left, hugs her friend Ayiana Myran as they wait to perform alongside other dancers at Toronto City Hall during the Every Child Matters walk in honour of children who lost their lives in Canada's residential school system.COLE BURSTON/AFP/Getty Images

Several Indigenous organizations said Canada Day is not a time to celebrate this year.

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,” Mr. 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.”

The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and other Indigenous groups issued a “no pride in genocide” joint statement.

Rally participants young and old wear orange shirts as they march down Portage Ave. in support of residential school survivors and the families of missing and murdered Indigenous children, in Winnipeg.Mike Sudoma/The Canadian Press

“This is not about ‘cancelling’ Canada Day,” AMC Grand Chief Arlen Dumas said in the news release. “It’s time, not only to talk about the atrocities, but to further take action and reimagine and rebuild a Canada that everyone can actually be proud of. … I challenge all Canadians to take time to not only rethink what Canada Day can and should mean in the future, but for today, to pay honour to all First Nations across this country as we mourn the losses of not so long ago.”

But Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said in a statement Thursday that Canada is “our national day of celebration” where Canadians of every background can come together. He had been expressing concern in recent days over what he described as calls to “cancel” Canada Day in response to the discoveries related to residential schools.

“Reconciliation with Indigenous peoples must be a central focus of the Canadian future as it is a great failure of our past. The road to reconciliation does not start by tearing Canada down, but by recommitting to building Canada and all its people up. We can celebrate the country that we are and the one we aspire to be,” he said.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said that celebrating “feels wrong” in light of recent events.

“I have immense admiration for the strength and resilience of Indigenous peoples,” he wrote in a social-media post. “I am eternally grateful to them and, as they grieve, celebration feels wrong. This year, I will mark Canada Day in pursuit of accountability and justice for the first peoples of this land.”

Siksika band members drum as they lead a convoy of members of the Siksika Nation paying tribute to victims of residential schools as they travel to Old Sun Community College, site of a former residential school, on the Siksika Nation near Gleichen, Alta.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

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 cancellations of Canada Day celebrations and the public-health restrictions, lockdowns and mask mandates that have accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic.

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

With a report from The Canadian Press

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