National Day for Truth and Reconciliation
By: Ralph Eldridge, Indigenous Engagement Lead, Canada’s Ocean Supercluster
As a child, through the eyes of innocence, it was hard not to associate the term “holiday” with warm fuzzy feelings of celebration and togetherness; holiday celebrations that closed out the year and began a new one, summer vacations that seemed to go on forever, or even just a single day off school that allowed for one more day of weekend slumber. Sure, there was November 11th, but the reaches and effects of past wars and fallen soldiers offered up, at most, a brief reflection of my generation’s privileged space. Even as a Mi’kmaq person growing up in Newfoundland, struggling to find my place and connect with my culture that had been all but erased through generations of policies that forced assimilation, my struggle pales bleakly in comparison to those impacted by the legacy of Canada’s residential school system. Given the churches’ role in administering these schools, no irony is lost in referencing this week’s commemorative day as a “holiday.” [Holiday, Old English hāligdæg or ‘holy day’]
A year ago this week, Canada officially marked the first federal statutory holiday to honour the lost children and survivors of church-run, government-funded residential schools. Again, this year, as we recognize the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, we take time to remember those that, for too long, were forgotten and those that continue to experience the impacts of intergenerational trauma.
The federal statutory holiday comes in response to recommendation #80 of the Truth and Reconciliation (TRC) Commission’s 94 Calls to Action. The TRC Commission came about as an element of Canada’s largest ever class-action lawsuit. It spent nearly 8 years speaking to witnesses and survivors of abuse at residential schools and summarizing their findings within a 6-volume report in 2015. The report outlined 94 specific measures that could be implemented to acknowledge the painful history of the residential school system, and to create systems to prevent future such atrocities.
Choosing September 30th to mark this day was a very deliberate decision, as the date also coincides with Orange Shirt Day, a day Indigenous people set to recognize of the harm the residential school system did to children’s sense of self-esteem and well-being and also to affirm that, indeed, every child matters. This movement was born out of Phyllis Webstad’s poignant story, recounting how she was stripped of her clothing on the first day of mission school, including her orange shirt. Symbolically, of course, Phyllis’ favourite orange shirt represents much more than an article of forbidden clothing. It characterizes how family, culture, and hope have sytemically been ripped from Indigenous people for generations and how that loss permeates so many aspects of Indigenous life.
Sadly, it took six years to move forward on TRC report recommendation #80. Last year, revelations of an estimated 200 burial sites at a former BC residential school on the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation and further evidence by the Cowessess First Nation of an additional 750 unmarked graves at a former residential school in Saskatchewan played a part in expediting the 2021 holiday announcement. Since that time, even more discoveries have been made, primarily in western Canada, with an estimated 2,300 grave sites now revealed – 2,300 untold stories.
Indigenous people are often asked what can be done to support reconciliation. The first thing I would recommend is to show your colours and support Orange Shirt Day. Please skip the temptation to buy your orange shirt from a box store; rather, buy directly from an Indigenous organization, artist, or community. Secondly, read and seek to understand the 94 Calls to Action. They contain the roadmap to reconciliation and concrete measures to help Indigenous people in their journey to healing. Actionable recommendations are targeted toward primary conditions such as child welfare, education, healthcare, language and culture, and justice. Yet, despite the well intentions of each of these 94 recommendations, seven years have passed, and only 13 recommendations have been implemented. As Canadians, we have a moral responsibility to do better than this. Every Canadian should understand the true history of how Indigenous peoples were treated by the church and government. We need to push this agenda to the fore and make our parliamentarians commit to implementing the 94. We need to understand that being Indigenous in Canada has been no holiday.