WINNIPEG — When Michèle Audette was growing up, Canada Day was not a celebration.
It left her feeling bitter.
The daughter of a Quebecois father and an Innu mother, Audette didn’t see herself in the school curriculum.
She didn’t see a recognition of Indigenous populations that existed for thousands of years in many of the places she lived.
But she was also conflicted.
When First Nations, Metis and Inuit dancers took the stage there would be a feeling of pride, she says, even if it was only fleeting.
“They were there to remind Canada that people were here, are still here today, and showing the resilience of our nations. It is beautiful,” she says. “But it needs to be there everyday. It needs to be there in the laws, the policies and the programs.”
Audette spent more than two years hearing testimony from women, families and experts as one of the commissioners from the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG).
The inquiry’s final report, released in early June, detailed a deliberate and persistent pattern of abuses against Indigenous women, girls, two-spirited people and LGBTQ individuals, which it said can only be described as a genocide.
The report included 231 recommendations, including calls for all Canadians to learn Indigenous history and use that knowledge to break down barriers.
Watch: Here’s what you need to know about the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls inquiry’s final report. Story continues below.
A lot of Indigenous people don’t celebrate Canada Day because it’s a reminder of colonization, says inquiry Chief Commissioner Marion Buller. And they won’t celebrate until they see a real change in policies and practices from all levels of government, she says.
“One thing that we all have to accept is colonization happened and is still happening,” says Buller, who is from Mistawasis First Nation in Saskatchewan.
When the Europeans first arrived, First Nations helped the settlers survive. But over time, the fur market declined, as did military threats, and Indigenous people became an obstacle.
Reserves were set up on less habitable land to make room for railroads and settlements, or so that water could be diverted. Ceremonies were outlawed and a pass system was set up to control movement. Inadequate government rations left communities starving and susceptible to sickness.
Children were forced into residential schools where many faced physical, emotional and sexual abuse. Thousands of children died.
The ’60s Scoop in which Indigenous children were adopted out to non-Indigenous families followed.
The importance of inclusion
Many Canadians were not taught this history growing up, the commissioners say, and were shocked to learn colonization continues.
Family members who testified at the inquiry spoke about multigenerational trauma. They told commissioners about ongoing policies displacing women from traditional roles, forced sterilizations, children being apprehended, confrontations with police, poverty, violence and housing insecurity.
“This country is at war, and Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people are under siege,” the report says.
The inquiry found human and Indigenous rights violations, homophobia, transphobia and marginalization “woven into the fabric of Canadian society,” says Commissioner Brian Eyolfson from the Couchiching First Nation in Ontario.
Canada Day is an opportunity for education, he suggests.
“It’s important to include Indigenous Peoples and their histories, contributions and their current realities in celebrations,” Eyolfson says.
What I believe Canada Day can be is a time of reflection and a time to put into action our calls to justice, particularly around the importance of developing relationships.Qajaq Robinson, MMIWG inquiry commissioner
The holiday is problematic when it only reflects a palatable history of the country, adds commissioner Qajaq Robinson, but it doesn’t mean non-Indigenous people opt out because they feel ashamed.
“I don’t think it accomplishes much if we bow our heads in shame and hide in our living rooms,” says Robinson, who was born and raised in Nunavut.
She says the country’s positive aspects can be celebrated without glossing over the destructive parts of its past. But that means including Indigenous communities and making sure they feel welcome on their own terms.
“What I believe Canada Day can be is a time of reflection and a time to put into action our calls to justice, particularly around the importance of developing relationships.
“I don’t think that it’s a contradiction to celebrate the potential of Canada and to celebrate some of what we’ve done, or to be proud of it while also reflecting on what has happened and what we need to do moving forward.”