This editorial was originally published in Nanaimo This Week, your weekly local newsletter.
As Nanaimo prepares to mark Canada Day today, some residents are questioning the merit of the city’s decision to host these events in light of the recent confirmations of more than a thousand unmarked graves, primarily those of children, on various sites of former residential schools across the country.
Municipalities like Victoria decided to cancel Canada Day celebrations “as First Nations mourn and in light of the challenging moment we are in as a Canadian nation,” said Mayor Lisa Helps.
Penticton Mayor John Vassilaki says that when he consulted with local Chief Greg Gabriel of the Penticton Indian Band to ask how he could be supportive, Gabriel’s response was that they’d appreciate it if they “cooled down the celebrations” this year, so that’s what the city did.
In Nanaimo, it’s a different story.
In the city’s press release regarding the events, the grief of many people across the country over the findings and the growing calls for a national day of mourning isn’t even mentioned.
Cancelling celebrations in Nanaimo was never raised as an option, said Nanaimo mayor Leonard Krog.
“Snuneymuxw First Nation has not made any request to the city to ‘cancel Canada Day’ in the way the City of Victoria has. They have never raised it, we have never raised it, I wouldn’t suggest it’s ever been under consideration to my knowledge,” he told Nanaimo News Now.
However the pain for local residents is something that is far from in the distant past, and the legacy and trauma of residential schools reverberates into the present.
“Myself and many, many others are in a very deep place of pain and mourning. I am dreading Canada Day celebrations,” wrote IndigiNews reporter, mother and stepmother of three Snuneymuxw children and ally to the Snuneymuxw First Nation Anna McKenzie in an online message to family and friends.
“If you are planning on celebrating Canada Day this year, and are planning to post said celebrations in a time where our entire country is grappling with the findings of children’s bodies, I will be deleting you as a connection on all social media platforms. This is not a threat, it’s a plea. Take the time this Canada Day to learn about Canada’s long history of genocide and colonization. Watch films, read books, speak with your friends and family, donate to an Indigenous youth organization, check in on your Indigenous friends, call others out who will be rubbing salt in a very raw and weeping wound through celebrating.”
In light of Anna’s plea, I’m reminded of an extraordinary historical document called the Laurier Memorial, which I only learned about fairly recently, when I covered a story for the Salish Sea Sentinel in 2018. It was a keynote speech delivered by lawyer Doug White III (Kwul’a’sul’tun), who was then director of Vancouver Island University (VIU)’s Centre for Pre-Confederation Treaties and Reconciliation at VIU as part of their Indigenous Speakers series.
Titled “Re-imagining reconciliation: confronting myths and the future of Canada,” the talk was hosted in partnership with CBC Radio’s show Ideas. It was a sweeping, far-reaching and moving speech but at its essence was the concept that true reconciliation needs to happen not only in a space of tolerance, but one of love.
It was in this speech that he referenced the Laurier Memorial, a documented speech made by a delegation of various B.C. chiefs to then-prime minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier during his visit to Kamloops in 1910.
What makes it extraordinary is that it is a window into what the shared life of Indigenous peoples and settlers was like at that time in B.C.
Summarizing it at the time in his speech, Doug referenced a passage where the chiefs talked about the initial arrival of non-Indigenous people in their territory. “Some of our chiefs said, ‘These people wish to be partners with us in our country. We must therefore be the same as brothers to them, and live as one family. We will share equally in everything, half and half, in land and water and timber and so on. What is ours will be theirs, and what is theirs will be ours. We will help each other to be great and good.’”
This was the vision set forth by the chiefs on how relations between settlers and Indigenous people could be based on mutual aid, respect, shared jurisdiction and a desire for each party not just to survive but to thrive.
It’s a perspective worth thinking about on this day of reflection and mourning.