At the time of writing this, that’s how many children’s unmarked graves have been recently discovered at residential school sites across the country. It’s a sobering and heartbreaking number, and I have no doubt that it will continue to grow in the weeks, months, and maybe even years to follow.
I say that these graves were discovered, but perhaps confirmed is a more accurate word choice. It’s not exactly breaking news that this happened in residential schools, and most people you’d run into on the street would agree that it is a very dark stain on Canada’s history. In that sense, finding these graves shouldn’t be a shock to anyone.
Yet, it is a shock. I think the shock comes from being suddenly confronted by this dark chapter when many hoped the page had been turned. The last residential school in Canada closed in 1996. For me and everyone else born in 1997 or later, residential schools have been defunct for our entire lives. We learned that they happened, but they are as much a part of history as World War II or suffrage or Audrey Hepburn. Before our time. And when history from before I existed slips back into the living present, it is unsettling, odd, and jarring.
In this case, it’s also tragic, heart-rending, and grievous.
1,323 is a lot of a children to have died. A lot of families who now know with certainty their children will never return. A lot of lives lost in the name of the beautiful faith that I cherish and hold to be mine. The image of Indigenous children’s unmarked graves is not one I want culture to associate with Jesus’ words: “Let the little children come to me.” It isn’t the first time the church has had a hand in pursuits that would grieve God, and sadly it probably isn’t the last. But that makes it no less painful. As a Christian, I mourn these children with a heavy heart. I pray that I and my brothers and sisters in Christ can be more faithful witnesses going forward.
But, more importantly to this post, 1,323 is also a lot of children to have died under the flag of a country I love and am proud to live in. With the fast approach of Canada Day, it certainly makes one think. What is Canada really about? Is it a country to be proud of? Can I still wave this flag with confidence? It’s a difficult question to answer since we have no concrete identity like our neighbours to the south. We’re just… Canadians. What defines Canada is… it’s Canada. (There isn’t even a universal way to celebrate Canada Day.) Many Canadians are asking questions about Canadian identity right now and coming the to conclusion that no, it’s not appropriate to celebrate proudly this July 1st. The hashtag #cancelCanadaDay has been trending on Twitter, and several cities around the country have publicly decided to forgo regular festivities in the hope that citizens will instead reflect on recent discoveries and educate themselves on all things Indigenous. There are even a number of protests being planned around the nation.
To people who see Canada as a country of polite, friendly people who apologize too much and have a weird fetish for maple syrup and hockey, the history of residential schools comes as a rude wake up call that Canada is as imperfect and flawed as any other country. It had (and has) governments who seek power and control and make poor choices as well as decent ones. It has people who can be selfish and cruel as much as generous and kind. It has religious conflict and political tensions and dark stains and ghastly mistakes just as potently as any other nation.
With all that thrown into sharp relief by recent headlines, it’s not surprising many people want to boycott celebrations of such a country.
But in the midst of the grief that lies heavy on my heart right now, I am reminded of this line from The Lord of the Rings:
“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.”
This resonates with me in a different way than it has before. I’ve always loved this quote, but I think now I understand it as applied to a place rather than a concept. Tolkien doesn’t discount loss or heartbreak or sugarcoat the darkness. But nor does he become so overwhelmed by it that he cannot see anything else. Perhaps grief can actually make us feel love more keenly, give it a quiet strength to continue on.
Still there is much that is fair.
The first thing that actually comes to mind when I think about what Canada is is how stunning it is. The natural beauty of this country is completely breathtaking. Land is one of the central things that connects us as a nation. The singular symbol that our flag bears, the symbol that represents our country to the world, is natural: a leaf. There’s a reason so many of our tourism destinations are pretty much nature scapes.
Anyone who knows me even a little will know how ardently I love the mountains. Even though I grew up within sight of them and have visited them more times than I can count, they fill my heart with awe every single time. Then there are the golden prairies stretching out as far as the eye can see under vast skies scudded with piles of cloud. The great, rugged Canadian shield with its maple trees and brilliant, fiery autumns. The fresh salty air and sea cliffs of the Maritimes. The towering white icebergs and breaching whales off the craggy coasts of Newfoundland. The lush Okanagan and stony or shell-spattered beaches of the West coast. The northern tundra spreading wild and free beneath dancing northern lights and stretching summer days where the sun never sleeps. Forests and lakes embedded across the face of the land, spritely and crystal clear in the warm months and silent sentinels over muted water under the blankets of pillowy snow in the bitter winters.
Something about Canada’s land stirs the soul and pulls you in to explore, wander, wonder. It is so vast and spacious that considering it makes you feel small and insignificant amidst such great sights. Unlike Europe or the Middle-east where human touch and voice stand out everywhere you turn, Canada’s natural world holds its own, speaks with its own voice. The land seems to claim wooden fences or forest walking paths as its own, and the people as well. There is this beautiful poem by Canadian writer Gwendolyn McEwan called “Dark Pines Under Water” which to me perfectly captures the feeling:
“This land like a mirror turns you inward
And you become a forest in a furtive lake;
The dark pines of your mind reach downward,
You dream in the green of your time,
Your memory is a row of sinking pines.
Explorer, you tell yourself, this is not what you came for
Although it is good here, and green;
You had meant to move with a kind of largeness,
You had planned a heavy grace, an anguished dream.
But the dark pines of your mind dip deeper
And you are sinking, sinking, sleeper
In an elementary world;
There is something down there and you want it told.”
Then there is the Canada of my ancestry. The Canada that, though far from perfect, provided a safe haven for both sets of my grandparents. They found a welcome here, struggled to survive here, worked and strove and loved and laughed and cried here, until it became a home. That Canada is a land of opportunity, a place where fresh starts are made possible. It is still that Canada for so many refugees and immigrants today, looking for home and hope and freedom in a new land.
There is the Canada whose armed forces are known as Peacekeepers. There is the Canada where equality, dignity, and freedom of lifestyle/speech/religion are granted to all. The Canada that banned slavery before it even became a formal country. The Canada that was among the first ten countries worldwide to give women equal rights. The Canada with good education and healthcare. The Canada with borders free from conflict. The Canada with not one but two official languages. The Canada that supported Terry Fox. The Canada of Tim Horton’s, Montreal bagels, poutine, Nanaimo bars, and Beaver Tails.
And as superficial as it sounds, even the Canada that is trustworthy, friendly, and nice. I have vivid memories of travelling in Europe, where the automatic assumption is that if you speak English, you’re American. Once they figure out you’re Canadian, people’s entire attitudes change; it’s actually remarkable to see someone’s face light up with good will and affection because of where you come from. That’s a beautiful reputation, and one that I hope we as a nation continue to both celebrate and earn.
There are many reasons to be proud of Canada, just as there are many reasons to not be. 1,323 of those reasons have recently come to light, and throughout our land, love is indeed mingled with grief. There have been and will be many, many days to mourn the deaths of those children and the terrible things done under the Canadian flag. But on Canada Day, I want to take hope from the fact that though the residential schools remain a dark and twisted chapter in Canadian history, they are still only a chapter, and not the whole book.
So on July 1st, I will still be celebrating Canada Day. I probably won’t be buying fireworks (I never have) or attending any parades (I never do). But I will celebrate the way I usually have: by going about my day conscious of my deep love for my country which lingers despite its many grievous faults. Celebrating that I inhabit this amazing land alongside trees and rivers and mountains and moose and 37,590,000 other people. Grateful for a place that — while imperfect — is home.