In a speech to his caucus, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole shared his opposition to any push to “cancel” Canada Day celebrations following the discovery of unmarked graves of Indigenous children at a former residential school.
On Wednesday, O’Toole said while the discovery was “dreadful” and the ongoing reckoning over reconciliation and Canada’s failed commitments to Indigenous people is “something we should all be concerned about,” it shouldn’t come at the expense of celebrating the country.
“I’m concerned that injustices in our past or in the present are too often seized upon by a small group of activist voices who use it to attack the very idea of Canada itself. We are seeing news this week of Canada Day celebrations being cancelled. Canada Day, our day of celebration, when Canadians of every background come together to give thanks for living in the greatest country in the world,” said O’Toole.
“As someone who 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. I am very proud to be Canadian and I know most people are as well.”
Amid calls to spend the day reflecting on the injustices Indigenous people have faced, some cities in British Columbia have announced they won’t be holding Canada Day celebrations, though Heritage Canada is proceeding with a pared-down, largely virtual national Canada Day celebration.
O’Toole said that he looks forward to Canada Day 2022, when the pandemic should be in the rearview mirror, saying he hopes it’s the “biggest Canada Day party this country has ever seen.”
The federal leader said in his view, there is a difference between pointing out where Canada has fallen short and “tearing down” the country. In recent weeks, Sir John A. Macdonald and Egerton Ryerson statues or memorials have been vandalized or removed, in the face of renewed protest over the men’s roles in the residential school system.
“The road to reconciliation, the road to equality, the road to inclusion, does not involve tearing Canada down,” O’Toole said. He told his caucus of 119 that a Conservative government would be “committed to a renewed nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous peoples,” and one based on “the recognition of rights, of respect, co-operation, and partnership,” which was met with applause from the MPs in the room.
Asked their perspective on O’Toole’s position, both Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller and Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett said they are reflecting on what Canada Day means.
“I plan to spend some time with Indigenous peoples on Canada Day. There are many Canadians that want to celebrate what I believe to be one of the best countries in the world, but for many that isn’t the shared reality,” Miller said, noting that flags on federal buildings are still lowered, weeks after the Kamloops, B.C. school burial site was found. “It isn’t a rah-rah time.”
Bennett noted that Canada will also have its first national day for truth and reconciliation on Sept. 30, which will be a statutory holiday.
“On Canada Day I will be wearing an orange shirt. And, I do think that lots of people feel 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.”
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh also weighed in on Wednesday, saying that he understands why people feel differently about the idea of celebrating Canada.
“While there’s things that we can be proud of, absolutely, there are things that are really horrible, and that are a part of our legacy. It does us a disservice when we ignore the injustice, we ignore the bad parts of our history and the ongoing legacy and the impact of those horrible things that have happened, and continue to happen,” he said.