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With a speech to his caucus, the federal Conservative Leader has spurred new discussion about whether Canada’s birthday is worth celebrating, declaring he is against cancelling the national holiday.

Erin O’Toole’s comments on Wednesday led ministers and other party leaders to speak of seeking a balance between marking the day and reflecting on dark moments in the nation’s history.

Canada Day has previously been controversial, but is under new scrutiny since the announcement last month that the remains of 215 children had been found at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.

“As someone who has served Canada and will soon ask for the trust to lead this country, I can’t stay silent when people want to cancel Canada Day,” Erin O’Toole said, referencing his military service as he spoke in the final week of the current session of Parliament before an expected fall election.

Mr. O’Toole said the discovery was a “necessary awakening” for many Canadians that has forced a recommitment to reconciliation, which a Conservative government would pursue with a “renewed nation-to-nation relationship” with Indigenous peoples.

“Let’s acknowledge where we fall short,” he said. “Let’s ensure we do not cover it up. But let’s also channel the pain of a Canada falling short to build up the country, not tear it down.”

Mr. O’Toole promised the “biggest Canada Day party this country has ever seen” on July 1, 2022, once pandemic restrictions are fully ended.

Federal Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault said the government recognizes that, for many, Canada Day is not an occasion to celebrate.

“This has been a deeply emotional and traumatic time for Indigenous communities across the country,” he said in statement, adding the government is working with Indigenous partners to provide resources and support.

Canada Day activities will be hosted virtually for the second year in a row owing to COVID-19.

Matthew Hayday, a history professor at the University of Guelph whose research has dealt with the history of Canada Day, says the holiday has long been controversial.

“What we are seeing right now echoes, in many ways, debates that have been going on for decades about how Canada’s national day should be celebrated, or if it should be celebrated,” he said in an interview.

He said the pandemic has made it easier to cancel events. In British Columbia, Victoria’s city council voted unanimously this month to cancel virtual Canada Day celebrations. Other communities followed suit, citing the residential school situation.

Prof. Hayday said there were calls for cancellation of Canada’s 150th birthday celebrations four years ago, but the new controversy is more explicitly linked to residential schools than in the past.

“Before, it was a more diffuse conversation about general problems of Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples, general issues around racism, around colonialism,” he said.

Murray Sinclair, the former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said in a recent interview with The Globe and Mail that Canada Day should be reconsidered.

“Celebrating the creation of a nation that did this [residential schools] is something that really needs to be rethought. I think that the creation of the nation itself is an event that is worth recognizing, but celebrating it with a blind eye to the history of this country is just not the way things should be occurring any more,” the former senator said.

Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said Canada Day needs to be a day of reflection and acknowledgment.

“It is a day to recognize that it is a beautiful country but there are some terrible things that have happened,” Mr. Bellegarde told The Globe last week.

Others said on Wednesday they would amend their routines to reflect the times.

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett said she will wear an orange shirt on Canada Day.

The shirts are often worn to acknowledge the impact of residential schools and to raise awareness, particularly on Orange Shirt Day, Sept. 30.

Beginning this year, that day will become the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation to honour survivors of the schools, their families and communities.

“I do think that lots of people feel that that would be the appropriate thing to do as well as celebrating the best country in the world, but [one] that made some very terrible mistakes,” Ms. Bennett told a news conference.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said many Canadians have fond memories of Canada Day celebrations, but people feel a little differently now.

“I think people are looking at the legacy of Canada and while there’s things that we can be proud of, absolutely, there are things that are really horrible that are a part of our Canadian legacy.”

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