Canadians mark first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation

Grim discovery of children's graves where residential schools once existed brought decades of abuse into the world spotlight

Canadians attend the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in Ottawa, Ontario. Bloomberg
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Across Canada, orange-clad people are observing the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, now a federally mandated holiday honouring the victims and survivors of Canada’s now-disbanded residential school system, designed to forcibly assimilate indigenous youth.

From the 1800s to 1996, the Canadian government, often aided by the Catholic Church, operated a network of boarding schools that spanned the country. Ripped from their homes and forced to attend, children as young as 3 were not allowed to use their native languages and punishments for disobedience were often severe. Sexual abuse was rife.

Despite decades of whispers and rumours, it took a National Truth and Reconciliation Commission to bring the horror stories endured by indigenous children to light.

From 2008 until 2015, the commission heard the testimonies of thousands who described a school system that robbed them of their childhood and filled them with lifelong traumas that many still deal with today.

Why orange?

The official holiday was born out of Orange Shirt Day, a grassroots campaign that started in 2013 to help indigenous Canadians share their stories.

The orange T-shirt was inspired by Phyllis Jack Webstad, a member of the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation in Central British Columbia and a survivor of the residential school programme.

On Ms Webstad's first day at St Joseph’s Mission Residential School near Williams Lake, she was stripped of all her clothes, which included an orange shirt from her grandmother. She was only six years old and never saw that shirt again.

That orange shirt has come to symbolise the hundreds of thousands of indigenous children robbed of their culture, language and even material possessions.

In June 2015, the commission published the results of its findings and issued 94 calls to action, among them creating a national day for truth and reconciliation.

In August, Parliament finally voted to create the federal holiday.

The decision to make September 30 a federal holiday came after the grim discovery of 215 unmarked graves at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School on land belonging to the Tk'emlups te Secwepemc First Nation in British Columbia.

The discovery shocked the world and spurred subsequent discoveries of even more unmarked graves at the sites of former residential schools across the country.

On September 24, the Catholic Church in Canada apologised “unequivocally” to indigenous Canadians for the centuries of abuse they endured.

Rosanne Casimir, Chief of the Tk'emlups te Secwepemc, said that apology was not enough and is calling on the Vatican to formally apologise as well.

“The apology contains no acts of contrition or living up to the promises made by the [Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops],” said Chief Casimir.

The discovery in Kamloops catapulted the country into a conversation that was supposed to have taken place during the commission.

Chief Casimir said it is important for “non-indigenous” Canadians to be allies during this difficult time.

“It's really crucial that the non-indigenous walk beside us, with us in solidarity,” she told The National.

On Wednesday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attended a sunset ceremony with indigenous leaders and survivors of residential schools. On Parliament Hill in Ottawa, underneath the Peace Tower, Canada’s equivalent to Big Ben, the prime minister urged all Canadians to think hard about the country’s history.

“It is a day for all Canadians; it is all of us, it is all of our story,” he said.

In a statement published on Thursday, Mr Trudeau said the country must face “hard truths” to move “forward together towards a more positive, fair and better future".

Mary Simon, Canada’s first indigenous governor general, said the “uncomfortable truths” would help “unite” the nation.

Ms Simon, whose father was white and whose mother was Innuk, was not allowed to attend residential schools, and while she was saved of the trauma, she said in a statement she still felt the void of the missing children.

“I was a stand-in, a well-loved substitute, for mothers and fathers who desperately missed their children,” she said.

Roseanne Archibald, Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, an organisation that protects the rights of indigenous Canadians, said today was a day to “hold a vision of happy healthy children surrounded by the love and care of their families".

Updated: September 30, 2021, 8:48 PM