Yukon communities boycott Canada Day celebrations in light of residential school gravesite discoveries

Six Yukon communities will not be holding a Canada Day celebration this year.

Canada Day

A photo from a past Canada Day celebration in Dawson City. Photo courtesy: Dawson City

Six Yukon communities have announced they will not be celebrating Canada Day in light of the recent residential school gravesite discoveries across the country.

Within the last few days, Dawson City, Carmacks, Haines Junction, Mayo, Watson Lake and Teslin have posted on Facebook they will not be going ahead with Canada Day celebrations due to the findings as well as the fact the territory is grappling with a COVID-19 outbreak.

Wayne Potoroka, mayor of Dawson City, says Canada Day is usually a day of celebration that includes a parade, hotdogs and the cutting of a large Canada Day flag cake.

But he says his community, which is also home to Tr’ondëk Hwëchin First Nation (THFN) doesn’t feel like celebrating this year.

“Members of council had been talking about whether it was appropriate to host a celebration in the country given what had been occurring in residential schools down south,” he says.

“We’re absolutely sensitive to what’s happening in the rest of the country and the questions that are being asked of whether it’s the right time to have a celebration, especially when so many people in our community are grieving this news.”

He says after reaching out to THFN, council decided to cancel the event.

He adds the community has been supportive.

“They weren’t in the mood to celebrate and it would have been awkward,” he says.

The $2,500 dollars Dawson City council was planning to spend on Canada Day celebrations will instead be donated to the territorial government. It announced earlier this month it would fund an investigation into Yukon’s former residential school sites if First Nations wanted to do so.

“(Council) wanted to move past gestures,” Potoroka says.

“It’s probably a small drop of what will be required but we’re happy to make it available.”

Potoroka says council is also working with THFN to decide the best way to acknowledge and commemorate the former site of St. Paul’s Hostel, which was an Anglican run residential school that closed in 1952.

“The people that are interested in doing something, I’ve encouraged them to reflect on Canada’s transgressions with Indigenous communities as well as our residential school history. Frankly, that’s work we should be doing everyday anyways,” he says.

Chief Nicole Tom of Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation in the village Carmacks says she’s “very pleased” council has decided to cancel Canada Day celebrations.

“It was pretty heavy for our First Nation,” she says.

Tom notes she just recently had a discussion with an elder who put residential schools and their legacy into perspective.

“(They) described (residential schools) as ‘demonic’ and ‘monstrous.’ That just gave me so much insight into what they had to do to survive. We now know it was a survival. It wasn’t anything to be taken light of.”

However, she says celebrations were originally going to go ahead as planned.

A post by council on Facebook earlier this week regarding Canada Day celebrations in Carmacks attracted dozens of comments from residents expressing anger and disappointment that events would go ahead as planned.

The post has since been removed.

“I think (council was) perhaps not recognizing the fact that there was a lot of sorrow. Perhaps there is some educational pieces that need to happen in that area,” Tom says.

She’s hopeful other communities across Canada will follow suit and cancel Canada Day. She notes many Indigenous communities across Canada continue to struggle with the loss of traditional languages, poor educational outcomes, access to clean drinking water and other issues that are not felt by other demographics.

“Canadians need to take a moment to appreciate the people whose traditional territory they are living on, appreciate the blood and tears that were shed for them to reside here…Canada has some acknowledges to make, not just on paper,” she says.

Yukon’s Assembly of First Nations’ regional chief is also calling on Canadians to reconsider celebrating Canada Day.

Kluane Adamek released a letter addressed to Canada yesterday explaining she won’t be celebrating the holiday as she’ll be at the demolition of the former Lower Post residential school in Lower Post, B.C.

Adamek describes in the letter how her grandmother attended the school and suffered “horrific experiences” there.

“The day after the Lower Post Residential School is torn down, many in this country will plan for their usual celebrations of July 1st – Canada Day. As an individual, as a First Nations leader, as a human being, as a Canadian, I am in no mood to celebrate,” the letter states.

It ends by asking Canadians to read the Truth and Reconciliation 94 Calls to Action, the MMIWG2S+ Calls to Justice and to “pause and reflect” on recent National tragedies instead of celebrating on July 1.

Reporter / Whitehorse

Sara Connors is originally from Nova Scotia and has a Journalism degree from the University of King’s College in Halifax. After graduation she worked in South Korea for two years as an English Language teacher and freelance journalist. After she returned home in 2019 she worked behind the scenes at CTV Atlantic in Halifax before joining APTN's Yukon bureau in July 2020.