Written by: Joy Braga
Warning: The following article includes details of Canada’s Indian Residential School System. The National Indian Residential School Crisis Line (24-hour, 7 days a week) is available to provide support for former students and those affected: 1-866-925-4419.
Recently in June, the House of Commons unanimously supported legislation to recognize September 30th as a federal statutory holiday called National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. This new holiday will be a paid day off for federal workers and employees in federally regulated workplaces. National Day for Truth and Reconciliation notably coincides with Orange Shirt Day, a day when we honour the Indigenous children who were sent away to residential schools in Canada.
With this overlap, people may be concerned that the new statutory holiday will overshadow Orange Shirt Day, which started back in 2013 as a legacy of the St. Joseph Mission Residential School Commemoration Project and Reunion events that took place in Williams Lake, British Columbia. However, it is important to note some of the history behind National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
The History of Residential Schools in Canada
The Indian Residential School System operated in Canada between the 1870s and 1990s. It was run by the Canadian government in partnership with many churches including the Anglican, Catholic, Methodist, and Presbyterian. The goal of Indian residential schools was to remove Indigenous children from the educational, cultural, and spiritual influences of their families and communities, and assimilate them into Euro-Canadian society.
“I want to get rid of the Indian problem. I do not think as a matter of fact, that the country ought to continuously protect a class of people who are able to stand alone... Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department.” - Duncan Campbell Scott, Deputy Minister of Indian Affairs in Canada (1920).
In 1920, amendments to the Indian Act made it mandatory for every Indian child between the ages of seven and sixteen years to attend Indian residential school. It is estimated that over 150,000 First Nation, Inuit, and Métis children attended these schools.
Please note that the term “Indian” is only used in this context because of its legal precedence under the Indian Act. In the 1970s, the term “First Nation” came into common usage to replace the term “Indian” and “Indian band” which many find offensive. Still, it is always best to ask how someone identifies themselves and what they would like to be referred to as.
Establishing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)
Ten years after the last residential school closed, the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement was issued on March 8, 2006. This was the largest class action settlement in Canadian legal history and was negotiated by several different parties representing Indigenous organizations, religious orders, Indian residential school survivors, and the federal government. Included in the Settlement Agreement was the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) mandated to inform all Canadians about what happened in residential schools.
In 2009, the TRC began a multi-year process to listen to and document the truth of residential school Survivors, their families, communities, and others affected by the Indian Residential School System. In 2015, the TRC released a report outlining 94 calls to action. The establishment of a statutory holiday (National Day for Truth and Reconciliation) was one of these calls to action.
As stated in their report, this day is meant to honour residential school Survivors, their families, and communities and ensure public commemoration of the history and ongoing legacy of residential schools continues to be a vital component of the reconciliation process.
It is speculated that the recent uncovering of the remains of 215 children buried at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School (now more than 1,308 including those from three other residential schools) sped up the process of declaring September 30th as National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
While the official name for the September 30th holiday may have changed, Orange Shirt Day and National Day for Truth and Reconciliation share common goals of honouring those who attended residential school, their families, and communities; creating meaningful discussion and reflection about the effects of these schools; and commemorating the history and ongoing legacy of the Indian Residential School System.
This day provides an opportunity for all Canadians to learn about and reflect on the legacy of residential schools as well as honour the Survivors, those we have lost, and all who are affected by the residential school experience.