Today is July 1. Canada Day. In most years, it’s a day of celebration. A day of fireworks, flags, and barbecues. A day where Canadians celebrate the goodness of our country. Diversity. Freedom. Health care. Poutine. (Seriously, I love poutine.)
Canada Day is also a special day for me personally. July 1, 2011 marked the beginning of my tenure as rabbi of my congregation, only a few days after arriving with my family in this country. So I tend to think of it as a kind of personal anniversary in addition to being a national holiday – a day to celebrate my own journey to what I believe is a unique and special place to live. That may be especially true for me this year, as I mark ten years in this country and my first July 1 as a Canadian citizen.
And yet, this Canada Day is not like all other Canada Days.
On this July 1, Canada sits in the shadow of over a thousand unmarked graves of Indigenous children found on the grounds of residential schools around the country – with surely many more to be found in the coming weeks and months. It is a horrific find, and it corroborates the brutality and repression that Indigenous Canadians have been talking about for generations. In fact, it is a crime against humanity. Over the course of a century, this country ripped Indigenous children from their parents’ arms and shipped them off to residential schools, where it also ripped away their culture, their languages, their history and names, and sometimes their lives. Canada committed cultural genocide against its native people.
These are facts that we must come to terms with. The same government that today prides itself on providing universal health care also imprisoned children, malnourished them, and buried them without headstones. The men who worked so hard to unite the provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Upper and Lower Canada (which is, after all, what we are celebrating on July 1) did so at the expense of the people who had lived in this land for millennia. This country that so values diversity and was built through a concerted and prolonged act of cultural genocide.
Canada has much to atone for; the work of Truth and Reconciliation is only beginning. That is why it is so important to be having this conversation, to speak aloud about these events and attest to their truth. I support the idea that this year, rather than a celebration, July 1 should be a day of reflection and mourning – a day to mark and mourn the lives of thousands of indigenous children who suffered and sometimes died at the hands of those who wanted to stamp out their way of life.
There is still much good in Canada. We have plenty to celebrate, and there will be time to do so. I am grateful and humbled to (finally) be a citizen of this country. But I also recognize my privilege, and know that the story is complicated. May we spend this day in honest reflection and conversation about our country’s sins, about the ways that many of us have benefited from them, and about what can be done to begin to heal.
(For those who may be interested in my Jewish perspective on this, you can listen to my weekly podcast here.)