The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is recognized annually on September 30th. The University of Waterloo commemorated the day on Friday, September 29th, along with a commitment polishing ceremony to affirm the University’s commitment to decolonization, indigenization and reconciliation.  

Every September, we honour the lost children and Survivors, their families and communities who continue to be impacted by the devastating legacy of residential schools in Canada. Public and widespread acknowledgement and education of the continued impact and intergenerational trauma is a vital component of the reconciliation process.  

Elder Myeengun Henry holding the Eagle Staff during the Sunrise ceremony

The day started at 7 a.m. with a Sunrise ceremony led by Indigenous Knowledge Keeper, Elder Myeengun Henry, at B.C. Matthews Hall (BMH) Green. This ceremony and gathering allowed all who were present to greet the sun, all of Creation and one another to start the day off in a good way. The emotional weight of what the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation stands for was already palpable, but the ceremony gave everyone a chance to get grounded and head into the day with a good mind, heart and spirit.   

At 10 a.m., a Cedar Circle was opened, and the Eagle Staff and flag carriers made the grand entry for the Commitment Polishing ceremony that was held inside a tent set up at BMH Green. The ceremony began with smudging led by Elder Myeengun Henry, followed by a Thanksgiving address and opening remarks from Jean Becker, associate vice-president of the Office of Indigenous Relations, and Vivek Goel, president and vice-chancellor of Waterloo.  

Elder Henry then went on to ask Goel for a full re-commitment to reconciliation, indigenization and decolonization from the University. “We think that there’s progress that has taken place … I gave you that tobacco in your hand because I want to ask you an important question. What we talked about last year about decolonizing, indigenizing and reconciling, if that is still true today and you being the spokesperson and the leader of this University, are you still committed to those commitments that you made a year ago?” 

“Elder Henry, we are very committed — myself personally, as well as the institution, to our commitments. We’ve reflected that in our new Waterloo at 100 vision where we commit our campus to be indigenized and decolonized,” Goel responded. He also acknowledged that Indigenous peoples have had many promises and commitments made to them that were broken, and that trust must be built relationally.  

Elder Myeengun Henry, Jean Becker and President Vivek Noel during the recommitment ceremony

Earlier in the day, Becker and Goel both outlined the work that has been done so far and what will continue to be done. Including full tuition waivers for local First Nations on whose traditional territory the University is situated, a new 500-bed residence being led by an Indigenous architectural firm and will feature Indigenous design principles, the introduction of the Eagle staff and other important symbols and ceremonies on campus, and the official opening of the Office of Indigenous Relations, to name a few. 

The recommitment was followed by a sacred pipe ceremony to solidify the new commitment made together. An honour song was played to retire the flags, and participants transitioned to a second program to reflect on and acknowledge the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. Powerful remarks were made by Elder Henry, Goel and Becker, followed by a walk around Ring Road. At the beginning of the events, participants wearing orange shirts were given tobacco ties and were asked to hold onto these tobacco ties during the walk, where they reflected on the day and its significance.  

“We cannot have peace without Truth and really, we’re still gathering the Truth,” offered Becker, moments before the walk. She explained the significance of wearing orange shirts, chosen in honour of Phyllis Webstad, a survivor of the St. Joseph Mission Residential School to spread the message that every child matters.  

“We have to remember too that residential school wasn’t the end of anything. In 1996, when the last one closed, we were already deeply embedded in the child welfare system and we know that today there are more of our children in care than ever [before] at the height of residential schools — we don’t even have the numbers, but we know that it’s an enormous number,” Becker said. 

After the walk, participants placed their tobacco ties into a fire, sending their energy, prayers and good thoughts to the ancestors. A feast of soup, fry bread and Haudenosaunee strawberry drink was enjoyed by all, followed by a Round Dance to bring people together to heal, honour good relationships and celebrate life.   

Waterloo community participate in a dance circle

Waterloo and the Office of Indigenous Relations continue to amplify Truth as we build towards Reconciliation. We will also highlight the beauty and resilience of indigeneity, and the strengthening of bonds between Indigenous and non-Indigenous folks across campus and beyond. All members of the Waterloo community are encouraged to familiarize themselves with the five-year Indigenous Strategic Plan, which was developed to guide the University towards its goal of indigenizing and decolonizing the institution.