The official Canada Day events in Boitanio Park were a quiet affair Thursday, July 1, 2021 in Williams Lake, as the history of residential schools in the country continues to weigh heavily on the hearts and minds of many.
A handful of residents sat under trees in the shade for the first live musical performance the park has seen since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The traditional colour of Canada Day – red – replaced with orange.
Mayor Walt Cobb stayed home for the event, noting he had planned to walk over but reconsidered due to the extreme heat the city has been experiencing.
The scaled-back Canada Day events in Williams Lake were due to COVID-19 restrictions that were only recently lifted, said the mayor.
“It’s probably just as well because it’s been so hot. It’s better to be safe than sorry.”
Just a few blocks away in Herb Gardner Park, however, dozens of men, women and children donned orange shirts and gathered at a memorial site to solemnly sing, share stories and acknowledge the history of former residential schools in Canada.
Orange Shirt Day Society co-founders Joan Sorley and Phyllis Webstad were on hand for the impromptu event which was organized by Sorley just the day before in the absence of any other vigils in the city being planned.
Webstad, who is the inspiration behind the international movement, said she’s really had to rethink what Canada Day means to her.
“I was talking to the Prime Minister this morning, of all people today, and what I told him was that for the first time in four generations in my family, my grandchildren are being raised by their mother and their father. Because of residential schools and the Canadian history, mothers and fathers were unable to raise their children and it’s still happening to this day and I tearfully told him that … things are changing in Canada. It’s a big awakening across Canada and today, you can see all the orange, and that’s happening all across Canada. That’s what Orange Shirt Day was created for, was conversation and that’s what’s happening, we’re having conversation. We’re all talking and that’s what’s needed to bring us, eventually, to reconciliation.”
Mayor Cobb, who drew some criticism on social media for moving forward with Canada Day events, said he supports Orange Shirt Day, but he also supports Canada Day.
“I will never not supporting Canada Day. To me, Canada Day is totally separate from the residential schools (history),” Cobb said.
The mayor went on to say the history of residential schools in Canada is something no one can be proud of, and that those who are non-Indigenous can be supportive by listening, learning and acknowledging the past.
“Families were ripped apart … we need to understand, we need to hear about them and acknowledge it.”
Cobb noted he is reaching out to Indigenous leaders in the region in the coming weeks to see how city council can support them and work together, adding he believes the government is “doing the right thing” by supporting investigations at all residential schools.
“I think we need to know the whole story.”