National Day of Truth and Reconciliation is 'the edge of the beginning' when it comes to recognizing Indigenous issues in Canada

·5 min read

Thursday, September 30 marks the first annual National Day of Truth and Reconciliation. 

The official federal statutory holiday is intended to commemorate and remember Indigenous children, survivors, families and communities who were impacted by Canada's Indian residential school system. The system spanned over 100 years, starting from 1894 to the closing of the last institution in 1997. It operated by forcibly removing Indigenous children from their homes to attend boarding schools designed to strip them of their own culture and religion. They were frequently abused, assaulted and perished. The unearthing of countless graves of children on the grounds of former residential schools this year cast an even darker shadow on Canada's legacy, but is only a small piece of the injustice, trauma faced by the community until this day. 

The statutory holiday is one of 94 calls to action to come from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was established in 2008. Since 2013, the day was known as Orange Shirt Day, in recognition of Phyllis (Jack) Webstad, a residential school survivor who had her orange shirt stripped away on her first day of school in the 1970s, in Williams Lake, B.C.

Angela Mashford-Pringle is an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, as well as the associate director of the Waakebiness-​Bryce Institute for Indigenous Health. She says she hopes the day will give the opportunity for Canadians to self reflect.

Think about the land you live on, work and play on and what that land means to you. Canadians are the other half of the treaties. They have to think about what that means in their daily lives and how they contribute to the ongoing oppression and colonization of Indigenous people.Angela Mashford-Pringle, Associate Director of Waakebiness-​Bryce Institute for Indigenous Health

Not every province is marking Day of Truth and Reconciliation as official holiday

While it’s taken several years to establish a statutory holiday for remembrance and observance of those lives lost and shattered by residential schools, some provinces and territories, like Ontario, Quebec and Nunavut, will not recognize it as an official statutory holiday. Within those regions not choosing to officially give the day off, many employers are still giving their staff that option. 

Mashford-Pringle says regions that aren’t marking the day as an official statutory holiday concerns her, as it doesn’t give the opportunity for proper reflection and conversation.

“If there’s not national discussions happening, I don’t think we’re getting any closer to getting the truth out and we’re certainly not ready for reconciliation if we’re not going to talk as human beings to one another in a way that will move us from the current position to something that’s less oppressive,” she says.

The Kuper Island Indian Residential School is seen on Penelakut Island, British Columbia in a June 19, 1941 archive photo. A Canadian policy of forcibly separating aboriginal children from their families and sending them to residential schools amounted to
The Kuper Island Indian Residential School is seen on Penelakut Island, British Columbia in a June 19, 1941 archive photo. A Canadian policy of forcibly separating aboriginal children from their families and sending them to residential schools amounted to "cultural genocide," a six-year investigation into the now-defunct system found on June 2, 2015. The residential school system attempted to eradicate the aboriginal culture and to assimilate aboriginal children into mainstream Canada, said the long-awaited report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. REUTERS/Canada. Dept. of Indian and Northern Affairs/Library and Archives

'People think it happened a long time ago....it's still happening'

Patti Doyle-Bedwell is a professor of Indigenous studies at Dalhousie University in Halifax. As a Miꞌkmaq woman whose mother, uncles and aunts went to residential school, these are the parts of the country's history she’s always known and lived with. While she says having an official day of commemoration is an important start, there’s a lot more that needs to be done when it comes to educating Canadians about the historical injustices of Indigenous Peoples.

“The Indian Act was passed in 1876 and we’re still under that legislation,” she tells Yahoo Canada News

A lot of students are surprised that the act is still there. When we talk about historical issues, people think it happened a long time ago. They don’t understand that it’s still happening. With the child welfare system, it’s still happening. Canada is still fighting Indigenous child welfare. We’re still getting arrested for exercising our fishing rights in Nova Scotia even though our treaties are part of the supreme law of Canada.Patti Doyle-Bedwell, Professor of Indigenous studies at Dalhousie University

Mashford-Pringle agrees that a lot of the history around the oppression of Indigenous people still needs to come to light for many Canadians. 

“While we discuss what’s happening in residential schools, we still haven’t discussed what’s happening in Indian hospitals or what currently is happening with child welfare,” she says. “While it’s good to reflect on historical issues, the healthcare system and child welfare systems are just as old and have just as many problems and untold truths that we haven’t talked about.” 

As an example, she refers to eugenics programs that were introduced in the 1920s and 1930s in Alberta and B.C. that lasted until the 1970s, where the forced sterilization of Indigenous Peoples took place.

“What I want people to reflect on, now knowing about residential schools and what happened there, I also want them to start to question what else is going on that they may not be aware of,” Mashford-Pringle says.

Doyle-Bedwell describes the shift in awareness on Indigenous issues as “the edge of the beginning.”

“There’s a long way we need to go until our rights are accepted, and our stories are accepted so that we can start moving in a path of reconciliation in a nation to nation relationship," she says. "There’s a lot that needs to happen."