Northern communities cancel Canada Day festivities amid residential school reckoning

“That's what we need to do and I stand firm in what our decision was. I'm very thankful that my council saw the right side of history," La Ronge Mayor Colin Ratushniak

La Ronge Mayor Colin Ratushniak with Lac La Ronge Indian Band Chief Tammy Cook-Searson. Submitted photo

Warning: This story contains details that can be upsetting to readers

The Lac La Ronge Indian Band in northern Saskatchewan usually celebrates Canada Day alongside the Town of La Ronge and Northern Village of Air Ronge. 

This year the three communities have agreed to instead celebrate National Indigenous Peoples Day together on June 21 — to reflect amid a national reckoning sparked by the uncovering of 215 Indigenous children’s remains at the Kamloops Indian residential School in B.C. 

“It’s with the greatest respect and compassion that we have canceled Canada Day celebrations that we usually hold together as a community,” Chief Tammy Cook-Searson said.

“I’m a proud Cree woman, and I’m a proud Canadian… I have celebrated Canada Day all my life but  this year we’re pausing. We’re pausing to reflect and to remember and to honour the lives that were lost because we are still in mourning. It’s to honour and to pause and to reflect on that.”

Cook-Searson said plans are underway to use the same ground penetrating radar technology that was used to locate the children’s remains in B.C. at a grave site in La Ronge where two residential schools and an Indian hospital once stood. 

The settler town of La Ronge was built around those institutions. 

Once a small fur trading post and meeting place, La Ronge owes its current situation to an Anglican Archdeacon who acquired a grant for a sawmill to build a residential school. The school was set up to assimilate the Indigenous people of Lac La Ronge and surrounding areas.

This year La Ronge Mayor Colin Ratushniak said he wants to break with that legacy by cancelling Canada Day celebrations alongside the Indigenous community. 

“I’m going to stand in solidarity for what they need — as an allyship. Which is really important considering we’re on Treaty Six Territory and our communities are so tightly intertwined,” Ratushniak said. 

“That’s what we need to do and I stand firm in what our decision was. I’m very thankful that my council saw the right side of history.”

La Ronge town councillor Jordan McPhail said he introduced the motion to cancel Canada Day festivities both as a proud First Nations man, and as a Canadian. 

“Many Indigenous children being found in unmarked graves across our nation brings to light the very dark parts of our history. It brings to light the history of how Canada was built — to what we know it as today,” McPhail said.

“It shows what our nation — which many have fought and died to defend overseas —  has done to itself in its own creation.”

The motion passed by 5 to 2 votes at a special council meeting on Thursday with councillors Joe Hordyski and Hugh Watt voting against. While both Hordyski and Watt acknowledged residential schools as a tragedy — they argued Canada Day festivities should go ahead. 

“We’re in this together as a country. There have been horrific atrocities committed in not only this country of Canada but around the world. I strongly believe we still have an absolutely great country. We’ve been through some horrible events but let’s celebrate Canada for what it truly means,” Watt said. 

“With all due respect what has happened in these residential schools is a horrible event … We cannot forget what happened — but I strongly feel we can still continue on behalf of the Town of La Ronge to celebrate this great country we live in.”

Hordyski said that while he respects the Indigenous community’s decision not to observe Canada Day — residents he has heard from still want to celebrate the national holiday.

“I’ve spoken to many, many people and I haven’t heard one person that agreed that we should cancel — and I think that we represent the people of this community,” Hordyski said.  

“I think we can incorporate some sort of event or a ceremony to show our respect and honour what happened in the past (but) we’ve got to move forward together as a country.” 

Ratushniak countered that the town needs to make good on its mandate to advance reconciliation and strengthen partnerships with Indigenous communities. He said concerns about celebrating the national holiday this year were also raised by members of the public. 

“We got word from residents, specifically, that they did not feel (celebrating Canada Day) was appropriate,” Ratushniak said.

“I am a cisgender white male — which to me is the epitome of privilege in today’s world. I’m a diehard Canadian and I love being in Canada but there are some times when we need to look at the bigger picture — to help move things forward and have those difficult conversations.” 

Ratushniak acknowledged there has been some backlash since the vote — such as demands that the mayor and council be charged with treason, or return their statutory holiday pay. 

“It’s so ludicrous. I can guarantee you that most of the people that are making these statements are potentially coming from that very white privileged place that I talked about. It just really drives home how much more we need to have these conversations. That’s exactly what we need for healing and to forge forward,” Ratushniak said.

“It’s a very solemn day for me. To sort of see what kind of work we need to keep doing. But at the same time I’m so proud of where we are as a community and where we can hopefully go.”

Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) Chief Bobby Cameron expressed support — urging all communities to stand in solidarity with First Nations children who did not make it home from residential schools across the country.

“Many First Nations families are still mourning the discoveries of hundreds of unmarked graves of First Nations children at residential schools across the country. We support the Lac La Ronge Indian Band and surrounding communities, as well as others, who are making the decision to not celebrate Canada Day, but rather support celebrations on June 21st instead,” Cameron said.  

“We are supporting all First Nations across our treaty territories in this decision. Celebrating Canada Day is being seen as inconsiderate to all the children’s lives that were lost and we encourage everyone to consider the price these children had to pay at the hands of the Canadian government and church.”

Ratushniak said while it’s not his place to speak for other jurisdictions, he hopes more settler communities will join in grieving with Indigenous people and cancel Canada Day festivities.  

He suggested Canadians take this July 1 to reflect and have “hard conversations.”

“It’s so unfortunate that it’s taken the uncovering of what I think is a cover up of murdered children for us to have those long, hard conversations with ourselves,” Ratushniak said.

“It’s time, and I’m not willing to sit on my hands anymore. I’m willing to stand up. I have the platform to do it and I’m not going to be quiet about it.”

Cook-Searson thanked the neighbouring communities for coming together in support. She invited everyone to join in celebrating National Indigenous Peoples Day this coming Monday. 

“We’re really grateful to both the mayors. I want to thank Mayor Julie Baschuk from the Village of Air Ronge, Mayor Colin Ratushniak of La Ronge, and their councils for their support to come together and to reflect on that day,” Cook-Searson said. 

“We invite community members to come join us. There will be lots of events celebrating the Woodland Cree culture and Métis culture and just coming together as families.”

National Indigenous People’s Day will begin with a traditional pipe ceremony at 9 a.m. followed by a parade starting at the LLRIB band office. There will be tents set up for storytelling, arts and crafts activities. There will also be an on-site, walk-in vaccination clinic. 

A national 24-hour Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available to support survivors and those affected. You can access emotional and crisis support referral services by calling 1-866-925-4419.