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Police outside Parliament Hill on June 29.BLAIR GABLE/Reuters

In Moose Cree First Nation, along the shores of James Bay, the chief and council have designated July 1 as a day of mourning.

In Vancouver, three First Nations will preside over the largest Canada Day celebration outside of Ottawa, dubbed Canada Together.

And a ferry ride away, in Sechelt, B.C., the traditional Lions Club pancake breakfast will be followed by an orange shirt walk and parade to honour people who attended residential schools, including local shishalh Nation members.

“There has been awakening across Canada and it has been no different in our community,” said Garry Feschuk, former shishalh Nation chief and co-chair of a community reconciliation initiative.

Across the country, Canada Day will look a little different this year. Scores of towns and cities will weave reconciliation themes into a holiday that has long spurned Indigenous people. But doing so hasn’t come without controversy, a constant bedfellow of Canada Day since its inception as Dominion Day in 1879.

With the announcement of possible unmarked graves near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School last May, at least 80 municipalities cancelled festivities in 2021. Dozens of groups held #CancelCanadaDay events instead, with one gathering in Winnipeg toppling statues of Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth.

This year, the city’s celebration at The Forks is focused more on Indigenous-led programming and less on patriotic elements, such as fireworks, drawing criticism from former federal cabinet minister Lloyd Axworthy and mayoral candidate Jenny Motkaluk for an inadequate emphasis on Canadian pride.

In Thunder Bay, too, the city has decided to skip the fireworks and focus on a reconciliation theme. “For many Indigenous Peoples, Canada Day is not a time of celebration, but a reminder of our country’s colonial past and ongoing challenges,” the city website states.

Vancouver is also dropping its waterfront fireworks show, but points to rising security costs as the reason. The rest of the celebration has been re-badged as Canada Together and planned alongside Musqueam, Squamish and Tseleil-Waututh Nations.

“Canada Day, from its inception, emphasized colonizers and the colonized country and excluded the time and history that existed before newcomers came and any evidence of our presence in the colonial period,” said Chief Robert Joseph, ambassador of Reconciliation Canada, who will speak at the Vancouver event. “Now, we are weaving together a new narrative that we are all one and should celebrate as one.”

In Sechelt, Mr. Feshchuk never used to pay attention to Canada Day. “It was just another day on the calendar to me,” he said. But last year, with Canada Day events cancelled, around 1,000 residents of Sechelt and the surrounding Sunshine Coast region marched on July 1 to honour children who attended residential schools. This year, he wants to recapture that sentiment and integrate it within Canada Day celebrations.

He co-chairs a group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous residents, called the syiyaya Reconciliation Movement, which has organized 11 days of events stretching from Indigenous Peoples’ Day on June 21 through to Canada Day. Mr. Feschuk hopes syiyaya Days (syiyaya means family and friends in the shashishalhem language) will persuade people to embrace reconciliation. “We’re a long ways off from reconciliation, but you only fail when you stop trying,” he said.

Others believe that no amount of Indigenous inclusion can gloss over Canada Day’s colonial themes.

Around five years ago, the Idle No More movement launched a campaign to cancel Canada Day. Chokecherry Studios, an Indigenous youth group in Saskatoon, is continuing the effort this year, organizing a Cancel Canada Day event at Kiwanis Memorial Park with a smudge walk and flash-mob round dance.

Idle No More co-founder Sheelah McLean will be attending. The event will “challenge that master narrative that Canada is a democratic and multicultural country founded on equality and democracy,” said Dr. McLean, co-editor of the recently published White Benevolence: Racism and Colonial Violence in the Helping Professions. “We want to really challenge that because we know that this country is actually built on genocide of Indigenous people and racist policies and practices that have really benefited white settlers more than other groups.”

In Northern Ontario, Moose Cree First Nation (MCFN) has decided it would be “inappropriate” to celebrate Canada Day given discoveries of possible unmarked graves in several First Nations.

There’s tradition in that sort of dissent. A bill put forward in 1869 calling for its creation met resistance from Nova Scotia MPs, one saying it would be a “day of lamentation” for Nova Scotians who were forced into Confederation, according to University of Guelph history professor Matthew Hayday.

Starting in the 1920, Dominion Day became known as Humiliation Day among Chinese-Canadians protesting the 1923 Chinese Immigration Act that blocked most Chinese immigration. Major federal funding started in 1958, but has waxed and waned depending on the state of Quebec separatism and other political considerations.

“It has never been an uncontroversial holiday,” said Dr. Hayday. “It’s constantly shifting.”

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