Flags fly at half mast at Pen-High and all school properties across SD67 out of respect of the 215 children's graves found at the Kamloops residential school. (Monique Tamminga Western News)

Opinion: This Canada Day, let’s reflect on what the path forward looks like

For too long our government has been complacent on safety, dignity, rights of Indigenous peoples

On Saturday, June 26, I took part in the send-off ceremonies in Penticton for the Syilx Caravan for the Children that went to Kamloops to grieve for the 215 children who were found in unmarked graves on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation. A good crowd had gathered, most wearing the orange shirts that have come to symbolize the terrible realities of residential schools in Canada.

While the grieving that was expressed at that send-off was centred on the loss of hundreds of children in British Columbia and thousands across the country, it was accentuated by news of the burning of two more churches on reserves in the Okanagan Nation. On June 21, arson destroyed historic Catholic churches on the Penticton and Osoyoos Reserves, and that loss was added to on Saturday with the burning of churches in the Chopaka and Hedley communities.

On Saturday, Chief Greg Gabriel of the Penticton Band, Chief Clarence Louie of the Osoyoos Band and Chief Keith Crow of the Lower Similkameen Band spoke of the anger and sadness of their people over the news of the children’s unmarked graves in Kamloops, compounded with the loss of their churches.

I offer my heartfelt condolences to the constituents, neighbours and keepers of the land on which I live and serve– the Syilx People of the Okanagan Nation. The fires that destroyed these churches will not heal the immense sadness and anger that has resurfaced from the discovery of children buried in unmarked graves across the country. The churches represented different things to different community members but no act that endangers any person in our communities should be tolerated – everyone has the right to live in safety and dignity.

For too long our government has been complacent about the safety, dignity and rights of Indigenous peoples. In this moment when the government and the non-indigenous community have awakened to the atrocities of residential schools, we must take decisive action to end the unfair treatment of Indigenous children by the government, unfair treatment that continues to this day. The federal government must stop fighting Indigenous kids in court over financial compensation to residential school survivors, or which jurisdiction is responsible. Indigenous children must have the same access to health care that non-indigenous children have. Indigenous communities must have access to clean drinking water. These are the first steps; there are many more that need to be taken.

At the send-off, people also talked of the debate around Canada Day and how best to mark it this year. I spoke to one friend from the Penticton Band, who expressed her feelings this way: “When a family member dies, we grieve them for a year. Today we are grieving our lost children. Please give us this one year to do that.”

On Canada Day, we celebrate what makes our country wonderful, our common bonds and the desire to be the best we can. However, there are parts of our history, and present, that we cannot be proud of, including the tragic legacy of residential schools. Doing our best means working toward real reconciliation, being truthful about our history, and moving forward now to create a just society for all.

This Canada Day, let’s reflect on what that path forward looks like. Together we can work to ensure our communities are free of further violence where everyone feels respected and valued. We know what needs to be done. And land is at the heart of reconciliation, so the path must ensure that our land stays beautiful and bountiful.

Enjoy this beautiful land we are so blessed to live in. I wish you an enjoyable and safe summer.

If you have any comments or questions about this issue, please get in touch with me at richard.cannings@parl.gc.ca.

Richard Cannings is the MP for South Okanagan- West Kootenay.