Owen Sound council’s discussion about whether to proceed with Canada Day events included moments of poignancy, passion and encouragement for people to educate themselves about Indigenous history in Canada.
Council decided to keep its daytime online lineup of entertainment and night-time fireworks, preceded by five minutes of silence or discussion of what Indigenous people are going through. Initial plans to have all available emergency vehicle sirens and lights activated for a minute before the fireworks were dropped Tuesday.
The council discussion came at the end of the meeting, after citizens’ letters questioning the wisdom of council’s Canada Day celebration plans were read aloud, in light of upsetting recent discoveries of residential school grave sites.
Some councillors said they received many messages for and against proceeding as planned.
Coun. John Tamming drew attention to the deaths of children whose graves have been discovered at British Columbia and Saskatchewan residential school sites. “We don’t know much about those children but we do know this: that without exception, they died without their moms and without their dads.”
“I believe this to be Canada’s original sin,” Tamming said. “The de facto imprisonment of our Aboriginal youth, under an Indian Act which mandated the forced relocation of eight-year-old girls and 12-year-old boys.”
He said he planned to introduce a motion to suspend all Canada Day events this year unless council supported modifying the event, as Deputy-mayor Brian O’Leary’s successful motion proposed.
Years ago Tamming, a lawyer, acted for Saugeen Ojibway Nation members who were forced to attend residential school in Spanish, Ont. He recounted what an elderly woman told him of when she was four and the Indian agent and local police arrived at her home.
Her father announced she would have to leave with her siblings. She recalled the gravel digging into her knees on the gravel driveway where her father told them to kneel and said a prayer over them.
“‘My dad was crying,’ she said. She had never seen him weep before. The children got into that car at Cape Croker, the agent drove off and she did not see her parents for another 10 years.”
Tamming said even with acknowledgments and other measures, “for me personally, it just does not feel right for this city to party. It seems insensitive.”
Coun. Carol Merton wondered if it might be better to hold the five minutes of silence or discussion after the fireworks. “It strikes me as a little bit odd to have a moment or five minutes of reflection silent or with words and then finish with fireworks,” she said.
“Fireworks are important. We understand this. But this is a different time and we’re in a different lens and I’m wondering whether there is an opportunity for us to think about the packaging of this.
“So at the end of the celebration we have the reflection, the learnings and the moving forward.”
Others said they thought people would start to leave once the fireworks ended.
“While I appreciate what Coun. Merton is getting at, there’s nothing like a captive audience when you want to make a point,” Coun. Richard Thomas said. “And I would just be concerned if the five minutes was moved to the end, there are going to be a lot of cars driving away and not a lot of attention given to the issue.”
Later, Thomas’s motion passed to enhance the city’s relations with its Indigenous neighbours.
It called for council to send a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and local MP Alex Ruff to urge that all 94 Truth and Reconciliation report recommendations move forward. It also asked for a staff report on “options for bringing Indigenous voices as a part of the annual review of boards and committees,” he said.
Coun. Scott Greig, who opposed Thomas’s motion, said earlier when Canada Day was being discussed: “We had such a great event a week ago at the dedication and naming of the Gitche Namewikwedong bridge.” He recounted an event in Meaford where he heard sad stories of people who attended residential school.
But Canada is also “tolerant, Canada is accepting, Canada is the land of opportunity. Canada is understanding. Canada is diverse. Canada is friendly. Canada’s welcoming. Canada is free,” he said.
“Since I was born in 1974, over 15 million people have moved to this country. I hope all of us take the time to reflect and reach out to friends and our neighbours and sometimes family members who are suffering right now,” he said.
“I’m pretty certain those 15 million people that have come to Canada in my lifetime have no intentions of leaving this great country.”
The fireworks on Canada Day gives people a “family night,” which those without spare money particularly appreciate, Greig said.
Mayor Ian Boddy talked about partnerships with local First Nations and the city on past local projects, including sewage treatment plant renewal and harbour divestiture. He said his relationship with local chiefs is important to him.
He’s also a “proud Canadian, proud of much of our history. Not proud of all of our history and all of us are getting that. Canada does not have a perfect history, no country does.”
He said he’ll attend a flag-raising in Cpl. Robert Mitchell Park on Canada Day in memory of the sacrifice Robert Mitchell made “trying to bring peace from Canada to another part of the world.”
Canadians have fought to bring Canada’s way of life to others and is respected for it, he said. He alluded to voter-suppression measures being enacted south of the border as an important contrast to Canada’s values, which are worth recognizing at least.
Boddy recited a list of Canadian steps taken to “correct the wrongs of the past,” based on his research since residential schools started to close in the early 1970s.
This has included 26 modern treaties signed by the federal government; the addition of S. 35 of the Constitution of 1982, which gives constitutional protection to Indigenous and treaty rights; the Charter of Rights enshrined in the Constitution which guarantees certain political and civil rights to all in Canada.
There was a royal commission on Aboriginal People report in 1991; Canada signed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2016; the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report in 2015 included thousands of residential school survivors’ voices and 94 calls to action, “many of which have not moved anywhere.”
He noted the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls was released in June of 2019 and contains 231 calls for justice.
“So I’m not saying that this is an answer, that we can just now ignore (as if) we’ve done everything. In my opinion, this is a start . . . to me these steps, starting to take these steps to recognize the horrors of residential schools, is part of what makes Canada a good place.”
He advocated using Canada Day “as a rallying cry” for people to learn.
He noted Greg Nadjiwon, the chief of the Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation, asked of people at the Gitche Namewikwedong bridge opening to educate themselves and their families about the full history and contributions of Indigenous communities. It should be part of school curriculum, the chief said.