Recent discoveries of nearly a thousand unmarked graves of Indigenous children at the former sites of residential schools prompted discussions in Canada and beyond about the nation’s historical treatment of its Indigenous population. The residential schools, a system of forced assimilation, separating children from their families, lasted until the 1990s, while Indigenous Canadians continue to experience discrimination. Recent news about the discovery of human remains—arriving soon before Canada’s July 1 national holiday—has reignited already hot discussions about Canadian national identity. Publications have run numerous essays from Canadians with a range of backgrounds on why they are or aren’t celebrating Canada Day this year. Towns across the country, from British Columbia to Ontario to New Brunswick, cancelled festivities. Canada, along with other originally colonial liberal democracies, meanwhile faces difficult questions about how to balance the righting of wrongs toward Indigenous people, on the one hand, with expressing pride in their histories as safe havens for immigrants and as places where citizens of diverse backgrounds can thrive, on the other. But given the latest horrific discoveries, should a country like Canada really be celebrating itself?

The Canadian journalist and author Jonathan Kay is an editor at Quillette, a columnist with the National Post, and was previously the editor in chief of the Toronto-based magazine The Walrus. According to Kay, the only way accurately to see Canada on the whole is as a “mix of good and bad,” moving in a positive direction over time. Symbolic gestures like demanding Canada Day’s cancellation—particularly in 2021, when Canadian lockdown restrictions already meant this year’s in-person events wouldn’t happening—don’t address the continued material problems of Canada’s Indigenous population. Rather, Kay suggests, they function as a way for Canadian elites—journalists, academics, and white Canadians from long-established families—to assert moral and cultural power over “ordinary” Canadians and those from families who have more recently immigrated to the country. “The people firing up the barbecue and waving little flags aren’t insensible to the bad parts of Canadian history,” Kay says. “They’re just people who are happy and proud to live in this country, which, although imperfect, is a great place to live, and has been busily making amends for many of the truly terrible things that were done by past generations.”

Phoebe Maltz Bovy: Given the recent revelations about atrocities in Canada’s former residential school system, should Canada Day be cancelled?

Jonathan Kay: I don’t think it should be cancelled. I think the burden of proof has to be on the people trying to change the status quo. Canada Day is the day we traditionally celebrate Canada’s existence. We don’t have to celebrate it. But it’s the one day on the calendar when that’s supposed to happen. If people want to cancel it, they should provide a theory that goes beyond terrible things happened, because terrible things have happened in every country throughout history.

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