Why brands need to be sensitive as the country rethinks Canada Day

Thought Leadership

The idea of Canada Day as a straight-up moment of patriotic celebration has been questioned for some time now, but with the tragic discoveries at former residential school sites across Canada – and the likelihood of even more unmarked graves being uncovered as the push to search for them continues – the calls to cancel the day completely are growing louder.

Most brand owners who are sensitive to their customers will be rethinking their typical July 1 communications, but what are good approaches when it comes to actively expressing their solidarity with communities living with this and countless other traumas?

In some of our research, we’ve found that “armchair activism” has undergone a practical transformation, where communities that connect online have realized the power they wield to translate tangible offline change. Look no further to how #BlackLivesMatter conversations in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in May 2020 resulted in unprecedented global protests in support of Black communities which, at last, seem to be leading to real world change.

In the last month, the remains of almost 1,000 children have been discovered at multiple residentation school sites – including 751 unmarked graves found last week – and conversations on social media about these schools in Canada have spilled out onto the streets. A statue of Egerton Ryerson – an architect of Canada’s residential school system – was toppled. And amid protests against old-growth logging on land sacred to the First Nations community, a statue of Queen Victoria was splattered in red paint.

As the conversation gains momentum online, we are seeing mounting pressure from the public to cancel the upcoming Canada Day celebrations.

This is not the first time the topic of cancelling the national holiday has come up, of course. Our monitoring over the last three years shows growing negative sentiment in the lead up to patriotic moments like this, and the amplification of voices from Indigenous communities asking “what exactly are we celebrating?”

But it is stronger now than ever before and still growing, as further discoveries are made at the sites of former Residential Schools, along with the brutal murders of four members of a Muslim family on June 15.

We’re seeing two key conversation themes emerge online.

The first is to cancel Canada Day, with many calling for a day of mourning and reflection. Indigenous communities across Canada have released statements declaring they won’t be celebrating the holiday, declaring it a day of mourning for their community, with several First Nations asking nearby towns and cities to do the same. Some townships, like Wilmot, have done so, while institutions like the Canadian Museum of History have already cancelled their special activities.

Others believe Canada Day should continue, but as a platform to educate Canadian citizens, giving voice and honour to all the lives lost to the Canadian nation state – Indigenous lives, Black lives, migrant lives, women and trans and two-spirit lives.

For brands, it’s important to recognize the underlying tension around Canada Day. While people are angry and calling for the holiday to be cancelled, many others – now fully vaccinated against the pandemic – have also been looking forward to them as an end of lockdowns.

While we understand that many brands have planned activities around the date as a marketing opportunity, it’s imperative that they be mindful of the sensitivities. They should also consider that the impacts of systems like residential schools will continue to be uncovered, and will likely be an ongoing conversation that brands should listen to and monitor.

But across the board, we recommend brands do not pursue activities around the date, especially when it comes to any messaging that relates to patriotism and celebration. Brands should also assess product sales and promotions drives. Activating them may appear tone-deaf or opportunistic, and risks long term brand impact or negative consumer conversations on our actions. If necessary, we’d recommend reframing messaging to speak more broadly to conversations on the re-opening, summer and long weekend in addition to reassessing when we are sharing to audiences.

Be an Ally: Amplify Community Voices
Brands that want to be more involved can recognize ongoing conversations by doing more than just sharing a post.

Think Forward 2021 highlighted how brands that simply “shared” during BLM received criticism for being performative, and not creating real impact. Instead, brands should recognize that voicing their own message of support is secondary to enabling the voices of those who have been marginalized or misrepresented. So, brands that have the legitimacy to do so should give their platforms to those that need a platform, amplifying Indigenous voices within the community. This could take the form of sharing content to help educate our communities through Instagram Stories in a manner that is relevant to the brand, values and overall mission.

Procter & Gamble is a good example, running campaigns around anti-Black discrimination for many years. In 2020, it added weight to its campaign ‘The Look’ by releasing a number of educational resources outlining the research that underpins its content. It also helps people to understand how they can drive change on a personal and community level. This evolution sees the idea of a brand campaign transform from self-serving to something that uses a brand’s reach and profile to be a catalyst for change.

Be an Activist: Advocate and Support
For brands that have a direct relationship with the community – whether through employees, where it is headquartered or the brand’s heritage – there is room to actively support. However, before doing so, we’d suggest brands consider whether the activity will meaningfully help the community. For example, could the brand look to create tangible support for the community through donations?

As the debate about the future of Canada Day continues, we’ll carry on listening to our community, so we always understand sentiments and use this to gain insights on how brands can be involved in authentically purposeful ways.


This article was written for Strategy Magazine by our Managing Director for Toronto, Coby Shuman.