Skip to content

Reconciliation sparks a reckoning for Canada Day fireworks displays

Chief Don Tom of the Tsartlip First Nation on Vancouver Island says he’s been known to “partake” in watching fireworks, as a way to bring families together.

Chief Don Tom of the Tsartlip First Nation on Vancouver Island says he’s been known to “partake” in watching fireworks, as a way to bring families together.

But on Canada Day, he wants people to mark the occasion in a different way, perhaps by donating to an Indigenous organization or taking time to learn about First Nation perspectives.

Tom is among those urging a reckoning for fireworks on July 1, to consider what sort of message they send to First Nations communities.

Pyrotechnics are also under pressure on other fronts, as the few minutes of awe they inspire are weighed against their cost, the terror they cause some animals, traffic and overcrowding woes.

“I think there are different ways (if you want) to celebrate,” said Tom, adding that he hoped people would “educate themselves on Canada’s history with Indigenous people.”

Activist group the Indigenous Foundation also says people shouldn’t buy July 1 fireworks and instead should donate the money to Indigenous organizations or residential school survivor funds, an idea that Tom called “a great initiative.”

“This can make a huge difference, and has a meaningful and lasting impact,” the foundation says on its website.

Many cities, big and small, across Canada will be staging fireworks displays on Saturday. But some have been reflecting on the need for the display, in light of reconciliation and other concerns.

Calgary announced in May that it was doing away with traditional fireworks in favour of an onstage “light and sound” show.

“The city recognizes the cultural sensitivities around fireworks displays in relation to truth and reconciliation,” it said in a statement, also noting that July 1 marks the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Immigration Act that effectively excluded Chinese migrants from Canada.

“For many Calgarians this is a day of mourning or reflection,” the statement said.

Calgary Coun. Kourtney Penner said on Twitter that doing away with the fireworks “isn’t nonsense.”

“It’s being actively anti-racist, working at truth and reconciliation, and being responsive to the diverse community Calgary is,” said Penner, who did not respond to requests for further comment.

The city also cited disruptive late-night traffic, noise and overcrowding associated with fireworks.

But the plan resulted in a swift backlash, with more than 13,000 people signing a petition to reinstate Calgary’s Canada Day fireworks.

The city backed down on June 18 and announced that traditional aerial fireworks would be part of Calgary’s celebrations.

Kristy Koehler, executive director of Common Sense Calgary, an advocacy group that organized the petition, said it was “weird” to equate fireworks with racism.

Koehler said people in Calgary of all backgrounds enjoy the fireworks, including many newcomers and people whose parents immigrated from other countries.

“They said it was such a wonderful way to feel (about) being part of the country, to feel connected with their neighbours, to go out and enjoy something really wonderful and really fun,” said Koehler.

“We can acknowledge all the ways that we’ve got it wrong as a country without cancelling an event that brings people together and provides an opportunity for togetherness,” she added.

Elsewhere, fireworks displays are facing scrutiny on another basis — their cost.

Vancouver’s traditional display on the waterfront at Canada Place is no more, after the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority last year decided to permanently discontinue July 1 fireworks.

“The fireworks display itself costs in excess of $200,000 each year for a 15-minute show, and other (costs) such as security, equipment and staffing continue to increase,” authority spokesman Alex Munro wrote in an email.

Munro said the Canada Place Corporation had previously funded the event with support from sponsors, grants and partners.

Another perennial concern relates to the impact of fireworks on pets.

Lesley Fox, executive director of the B.C. animal advocacy group Fur-Bearers, said fireworks “create havoc” for wildlife, pets, and individuals living with post-traumatic stress.

She said fireworks can startle and disorient wildlife, causing them to flee the safety of their habitats.

“I think the message is, fireworks are not for everyone,” said Fox.

Fur Bearers is supporting a petition to Parliament calling on the Federal government to stop using fireworks at celebrations, citing the effect on animals as well as air pollution and the use of toxins in fireworks.

Aleem Kanji, chief advocacy officer for the Canadian National Fireworks Association, said fireworks are “ingrained” into Canadian celebrations, from sporting events to Halloween, and are part of the country’s rich fabric.

Canada Day, he said, was an “exciting time” for fireworks manufacturers and suppliers.

“It’s almost akin, if you will, to Christmas trees around the festive Christmas holiday season,” said Kanji.

He said it’s important to consider how many people enjoy fireworks, compared to the number complaining about them.

The display on Parliament Hill can draw a crowd of 30,000, said Kanji, and Vancouver’s annual Celebration of Light fireworks contest attracts hundreds of thousands.

Fox said her group understood “nostalgia” around fireworks and they don’t want to be “party poopers.”

But, she said, there are more ethical and inclusive ways to celebrate Canada Day.

“At the end of the day, fireworks are unnecessary and they are replaceable. I think there is an opportunity here to explore that a little further (about) what could our holidays look like and how can we make them more inclusive for all, including animals,” said Fox.