Mayoral hopeful, former Liberal MP pan reimagined Canada Day plans at The Forks, though others support move

A former federal cabinet minister and a Winnipeg mayoral hopeful think The Forks’s reimagined Canada Day festivities miss the mark, though several other candidates vying to be the city’s next leader support the shakeup and added focus on reconciliation.

Last week, The Forks announced it has renamed the July 1 gathering “A New Day.” It will include a range of cross-cultural programming, including traditional Indigenous drumming, pow-wow dancing, craft stations, and musical and theatre performances. There will be Indigenous-led spaces for ceremonies and healing.

Basketball and soccer tournaments will be held, as will storytelling tents, a bike valet and a range of games and food trucks. Unlike past years, there will not be fireworks.

The organization said it made the switch following months-long Indigenous-led roundtable discussions with a variety of community members. A main theme that emerged was a desire for The Forks to feel safe, interesting and vibrant.

The catalyst for the discussions was discoveries of unmarked graves associated with residential school sites across Canada, which “made us really think about what celebrating a colonial milestone means to so many people,” The Forks CEO Sara Stasiuk said last Friday.

Longtime former Liberal cabinet minister and University of Winnipeg president Lloyd Axworthy criticized the changes in a Winnipeg Free Press article published Monday.

“I think it’s a decision that really needs to be revised and reconsidered because I think right now more than ever, I think Canada needs a Canada Day,” Axworthy told CBC News Tuesday.

Former Liberal member of Parliament and cabinet minister Lloyd Axworthy says he thinks The Forks should rethink it’s planned revamp of Canada Day festivities. (Zoom/CBC)

He was involved in establishing the Core Area initiative in the early 1980s, which played a role in shaping The Forks in the ensuing years. 

“We have to bring Canadians together partly to celebrate, partly to be together to understand who we are but also to recognize there’s real risk, real pressures. We’ve got people who are out there on the extremes trying to undermine our democracy.”

Mayoral hopeful Jenny Motkaluk also panned the change.

Mayoral candidate Jenny Motkaluk defended her position on Tuesday, saying she thinks Canadians can celebrate while also recognizing history. (CBC)

“I think that Canada Day is about celebrating Canada in its current form, and its current form includes all Canadians, it includes acknowledging that there have been historical wrongs and it includes looking forward and finding ways to progress into a positive future for all of us,” she said.

“The Forks cancelled Canada Day in favour of a new event … and because The Forks isn’t having a Canada Day celebration, I will be celebrating Canada Day somewhere else.”

Leadership at The Forks said in a statement that Canada Day isn’t cancelled at all.

“In fact, we are adding more content, more stages, and more places to gather to host an inclusive, fun day for all,” the statement reads. “Programming is focused on daytime activities and entertainment that is participatory, celebratory or reflective depending on where it is on site.”

The Forks said programming ends at 6 p.m., which is why they won’t be doing fireworks this year. The hope to bring that back in the future.

Several of Motkaluk’s competitors say they support The Forks changing things up and some of the reconciliation-based reasoning that influenced that decision.

“I recognize that change is hard and I respect the Winnipeggers who feel upset,” said former Manitoba Liberal Party leader Rana Bokhari, who is running for Winnipeg mayor. “But if we can just take a step back and see why we’re doing it … this is the path of reconciliation and healing and we want to be better, we want to be good allies.”

Former Manitoba Liberal Party leader Rana Bokhari is running to be Winnipeg’s next mayor. (CBC)

Candidate Rick Shone plans to attend The Forks events. Though he initially felt disappointed by cancellations of fireworks, he came around after looking at the “great lineup” of events.

“I celebrate Canada Day, it’s an important day for me and my family and for so many others who choose to make Canada their home, but … it can also be a day where we reflect on our past,” he said. “I believe they’re [The Forks] working really hard and coming up with creative and new ways to come up with an inclusive place for everyone.”

Candidate Christopher Clacio said the events don’t matter much to him, though he does see the programming as a step toward reconciliation.

Last Canada Day, Winnipeggers took to the streets in droves dressed in orange to remember the children who died in residential schools. (Andrew Friesen/CBC)

Eight-year city councillor Scott Gillingham — also running for mayor — said Canada Day and reconciliation are both meant to inspire reflection and celebration.

“This has become a polarized issue,” said Gillingham, who will attend the events at The Forks. “We really need to come together as a city and a nation right now and the focus needs to be on what unites us, not what divides us.”

Winnipeg mayoral candidate Shaun Loney said The Forks has been an important meeting place for Indigenous people for thousands of years.

“I can see why having a party there to celebrate Canada Day at that specific location would seem disrespectful, especially given the revelation around unmarked graves,” he said in a statement. “I will be marking Canada Day — both celebrating our accomplishments and reflecting on where we were wrong.”

For Gigaakikwe, which translates to Healing Earth Woman, the focus on an inclusive day is welcomed.

“I’m more for who we are as Anishinaabe and our territory,” Gigaakikwe said at The Forks Tuesday. “Canada to me is a Crown corporation.”

Gigaakikwe suggested emphasizing inclusivity is a positive step. (Radio-Canada)