‘Cancel culture’s new target’? Renaming of Canada Day events in Winnipeg sparks controversy

Jenny Motkaluk, who’s running for mayor in the October election, ignited a firestorm when she said she’d be ‘celebrating Canada’s birthday because I love my country unconditionally’

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The decision to rename Canada Day celebrations in Winnipeg has divided people, including those running in the Manitoba capital’s October mayoral election, and led to debates over whether it constitutes “cancel culture.”

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It comes at a time when cities across Canada are figuring out how to celebrate the anniversary of Confederation while respecting the process of reconciliation.

Each year, Canada Day celebrations are held at The Forks, a historic site, events centre and green space at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers in downtown Winnipeg. This year, though, the celebrations will be a little different.

“We are reimagining a Canada Day, a new day, that includes a reflective, inclusive and fun day for everyone to come together,” says an events notice on The Forks’ website.

The celebrations, which news reports have said will be called “New Day,” will feature “spaces for healing, with Indigenous-led music, dance, and sacred fires,” food trucks and picnic spots, “family-friendly, multicultural entertainment,” including Indigenous games, a chalk and bubble station and an oral history tour with Indigenous elders.

The changes have been divisive among some in the city.

Jenny Motkaluk, who’s running for mayor in the October mayoral election, ignited a firestorm when she posted on social media that she will be “proudly celebrating Canada’s birthday because I love my country unconditionally.” (The backlash was fast and furious, with one of the more extreme responses calling her a “dog whistling c–t.)

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Motkaluk told National Post Thursday that she was “really upset” when she heard about the changes. Canada Day, she said, is a way to celebrate the country and to “celebrate our responsibility to making it even better in the future.”

“Canada is my home in Canada is your home. And Canada is the one thing that unites all of us. We’re all Canadians,” said Motkaluk. “And to me, the cancellation of Canada Day was a very divisive act. And I think that Canadians more than ever need to be looking to the things that unify us.”

For her, the issue isn’t that the programming is different this year, with, for example, no fireworks. “It’s about the fact that they felt that we couldn’t call it Canada Day anymore, right?” Motkaluk said.

For those wishing to have a more celebratory Canada Day, said Robert-Falcon Ouellette, a former member of Parliament and mayoral candidate, there are other opportunities in town for those people.

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“Taking the time on Canada Day, which is usually a day of celebration, to be reflective, to think about our history, think about reconciliation, and what that means and what type of country we want is extremely important,” said Ouellette, who’s from the Red Pheasant Cree Nation. “Sometimes it’s good to take a day where we actually reflect on where we’ve come as a country and where we’re going as a nation.”

For Winnipeggers, the changes have been divisive, said Rana Bokhari, the former leader of the Manitoba Liberal Party, who’s also running for mayor. Still, Bokhari said, “I can’t wait to take my family there.”

“What I value about this decision is that it was done in a way that’s in light of the unmarked graves, in light of what Indigenous communities were going through, in light of these conversations that we’re having, these words that we are saying about reconciliation,” Bokhari said.

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Last year on Canada Day, thousands of people in Winnipeg — and around Manitoba — turned out to events honouring residential school survivors wearing orange T-shirts, rather than the traditional red-and-white of Canada.

“I know it’s a hard decision. You know, but change is hard. Healing is hard. Coming together as a community is hard, and it’s going to be hard,” said Bokhari.

Don Woodstock, another mayoral candidate, described the decision as “cancel culture BS,” a sentiment that’s been echoed by People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier, who said Canada Day was “cancel culture’s new target.”

“The majority of the folks that are part of the cancel culture BS do not work, they live off of parents or the government and really do not care one bit about me, you or Winnipeg,” said Woodstock in a release.

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In an interview, Woodstock agreed that the colonial system had marginalized Indigenous people.

But to cancel Canada Day, because of that fact, and to try and say to me and others that we shouldn’t celebrate Canada Day? No, man

Don Woodstock

“But to cancel Canada Day, because of that fact, and to try and say to me and others that we shouldn’t celebrate Canada Day? No, man,” Woodstock said.

He said he would prefer that the event continued to be called Canada Day but incorporated more of Canada’s history.

“At the end of the day, we’re still better off than being in Russia,” Woodstock said.

The Forks did not respond to the National Post’s request for comment on the Canada Day changes. But, the Winnipeg Sun reported The Forks had consulted with Indigenous communities about changing the way Canada Day is celebrated.

“We acknowledge the anger and hurt Indigenous communities are feeling, and we know we have a role to play in the healing process,” said Sara Stasiuk, CEO of The Forks North Portage Partnership.

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Other cities in Canada are grappling with how to celebrate Canada Day while acknowledging that, in the wake of the discovery of probable graves of Indigenous children who died at residential schools, the celebratory atmosphere clashes with reconciliation.

In 2021, just weeks after the first major announcement of probable graves in Kamloops, Victoria cancelled its Canada Day celebrations.

This year, in Kamloops, the city says “Canada Day is forever changed,” and that it will work with Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc “to ensure Canada’s true history is incorporated.” While Edmonton is still hosting a Canada Day event, the city notes the day “also offers us time to grieve, learn, reflect, commit to understanding the truth and move ahead towards reconciliation.”

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In Vancouver, the annual Canada Day celebrations at the Port of Vancouver are taking a “new direction,” with, similar to Winnipeg, a new theme and name: Canada Together. As well, citing security and costs, the port has cancelled the fireworks.

Scott Gillingham, a Winnipeg councillor, who’s also running for mayor, said he intends to visit the event, plus other events around the city.

“It’s unfortunate the debate has become so polarizing, especially online. The result is that it’s really taking away from the fact that Canada Day is to be a day where we come together, and reconciliation is focused on unity,” said Gillingham.

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