The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation has come and gone for another year, but the lessons learned and the reason for this milestone will remain with Canadians.
On Sept. 30, Canadians from coast-to-coast-to coast recognized the dark history of residential schools with a federal holiday that remembers and honours the lost children and survivors of a shameful chapter of the country’s past.
Nova Scotia is one of three provinces, along with Manitoba and Prince Edward Island, to observe the day with the closure of provincial government offices, public schools and regulated childcare facilities, while businesses had the option to close or remain open.
The Indian Residential School system, which was in operation from 1930 until the last of 140 such facilities closed in the 1990s, was designed to strip Aboriginal children of their culture and their traditions. Children, some as young as three years old, were taken from their homes and families, by order of the government, and subjected to abuse and neglect at the hands of the people tasked with their care.
Since 2013, Aboriginal communities and supporters have acknowledged Sept. 30 as Orange Shirt Day. Making the day a national day of reflection was one of the 94 calls to action identified by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015.
The day’s theme was inspired by the story of Phyllis Webstad, a residential school survivor from British Columbia. In recalling her first day at a residential school when she was six years old, Webstad spoke of wearing a new orange shirt she had proudly selected and the pain she felt when she was stripped of all her clothing, including her orange shirt. Her belongings were never returned to her.
We’koqma’q Chief Annie Bernard-Daisley encourages everyone to try and imagine the pain felt by the children as well as their families back home. Although it happened in the past, she said the ramifications are felt to this day, and will probably be felt for a long time to come.
Earlier this year, the remains of 215 children were discovered on the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. That number has continued to grow as the ground-penetrating radar technology used in Kamloops has been used at other residential school sites, revealing more bodies in unmarked graves.
For her part, Bernard-Daisley says the support from community partners is all meaningful, whether it comes in the form of people wearing orange shirts, flags flying at half-mast in response to the discovery of unmarked graves, or Inverness Municipal council reaching out to ask how they can help. She also points to people displaying red dresses in their windows to raise awareness of missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW), as well as organizations and businesses reaching out.
Remarking that it “means a lot” to have communities step-up, Bernard-Daisley pointed to the strong support from neighbours like Port Hawkesbury Mayor Brenda Chisholm-Beaton.
Noting that it’s up to current generations to set the record straight and put measures in place to stop these injustices, the chief said Indigenous people are “cherished members of this nation.”
This generation of non-Aboriginal students is learning about the issue in ways their parents likely did not, with schools including more content on the truth of our country’s history.
Students in Strait Regional Centre for Education (SRCE) schools honoured the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on Sept. 29, with students and staff wearing orange shirts, participating in classroom discussions, and often having the opportunity to hear directly from elders and residential school survivors.
Darrell LeBlanc, the SRCE Director of Programs and Student Services, notes Orange Shirt Day has been part of the school calendar in the region since 2013. He acknowledges that those lessons were not part of his own early education and encourages parents to be open and to continue the dialogue at home.
The school community aims to be supportive of its aboriginal students and recognizes the inter-generational trauma caused by the harmful residential schools, LeBlanc noted.
LeBlanc said it goes beyond the day, to holding conversations year round nationally.
Jill Burton, the SRCE’s Coordinator of Mi’kmaw Education Services, says schools have different ways of teaching Mi’kmaq history, including residential schools, throughout the academic year in age-appropriate ways, with many resources available through the Mi’kmaq services branch of the department of education. She says the lesson revolve around a full understanding of key works like reconciliation, residential schools, survivor, why orange is worn, and teaching about Mi’kmaq history, culture, and ways of knowing.
Burton said the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is a time to commemorate and discuss the harm that was caused by residential schools. With all the efforts going on in local schools, she is hopeful their efforts will build an understanding with students, families, and staff.
While schools end the month with a solemn day to discuss and remember the legacy of residential schools, Oct. 1 marked Treaty Day and the beginning of Mi’kmaq History Month.
Burton says schools will have discussions around truth and reconciliation, peace and friendship treaties, and cultural practices in October.
Ahead of the solemn day, the Town of Port Hawkesbury hosted an Orange Ribbon Ceremony and Blanket Exercise on Sept. 22 at the Civic Centre with representatives from several First Nation communities including We’koqma’q, Membertou, Potlotek, Sipekne’katik, Eskasoni and Wagmatcook.
To begin the day, the Mi’kmaq National Flag was raised at the Civic Centre, and those who attended the ceremony were invited to tie their orange ribbons on the Truth and Reconciliation tree.
During the Orange Ribbon Ceremony, Elder Katy McEwen, from the Mi’kmaq community of Membertou, gave an emotional speech about her personal experiences as a residential school survivor.
Anita Basque, Band Councillor for Potlotek First Nation, spoke about the importance of truth and reconciliation, while drummers and singers from First Nations communities performed.
Held in the Civic Centre, the Blanket Exercise is an experiential learning tool that helps participants understand how the arrival of European settlers impacted the Indigenous people who lived here before the colonists arrived. Participants stood on blankets that represented lands inhabited by First Nations.
Cheryl Copage-Gehue, from the Sipekne’katik First Nation, facilitated the Blanket Exercise. During the exercise, facilitators play the role of European settlers and walk the group through a script, telling the story of the first contact between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.
Then during the regular monthly meeting of Richmond Municipal Council on Sept. 27, councillors passed three recommendations from its committee of the whole session.
As a result of the approved motions, Sept. 30 will be recognized as Truth and Reconciliation Day in the Municipality of the County of Richmond, a day which Warden Amanda Mombourquette described as a day for municipal employees to “reflect” on the truth and reconciliation situation.
To accommodate that date, the Hours of Operation Policy will be changed so all municipal buildings and facilities will be closed on Sept. 30.
The final motion is that the municipality will host a flag raising ceremony, sometime next month. Before the date is finalized, the warden added the municipality wants to speak with representatives of Potlotek First Nation.
These local celebrations are in addition to others held around the region, the province and the country marking this important day.
Unlike most holidays or other significant days on the calendar, this isn’t about celebration, time with family, or tradition.
In fact the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is the opposite. This day is about remembering the horrors of the past, reflecting on the impact of those tragedies, and pushing for change so that it never happens again.
And if Canada is ever going to become a truly great country, this process must continue not just on Sept. 30 but all year.