Frances Sanderson sat by a table in Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square, where children were making beaded friendship bracelets and painting pine cones. The event was one of many that had been organized across the country in recognition of Canada’s second annual National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, which commemorates the intergenerational harms inflicted on Indigenous peoples by Canada’s residential and day schools.
As a member of Whitefish River First Nation whose family members were forced to attend residential schools, Ms. Sanderson has seen a growing awareness among children about the legacy and effects of Canada’s residential school system.
“It’s getting through to the educators. And they’re starting to pick up on what’s important, and how to teach kids so that, hopefully, it’ll stay in their minds and stay in their hearts,” she said.
For Ms. Sanderson, who is also the executive director of Nishnawbe Homes Inc., a non-profit housing provider, the day was about reflecting and recognizing the realities of this country’s history.
“It’s a start. It’s not a celebration. It’s not a happy day. It’s more of a day to remember. It’s like a memorial.”
The national day, which was created as a federal statutory holiday by Parliament in 2021, was marked by a variety of events on Friday. They included guided walks, plaque unveilings, speeches, ceremonies, music, art installations and moments of silence.
In Toronto, hundreds gathered in Nathan Phillips Square for drumming, dancing, singing, teachings and talks. Many children attended on field trips.
J’net Ayayqwayaksheelth, the director of Indigenous relations at the National Film Board of Canada, co-hosted the events in the square.
“As Murray Sinclair reminds us, it’s education that got us into this mess,” she told the crowd, referring to the former senator, who chaired Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. “And it’s actually education that will get us out of this mess.”
“If we don’t deal with this history, there’s a likelihood that it will be repeated.”
The day coincides with Orange Shirt Day, which was established in honour of Phyllis Webstad, a First Nations woman in British Columbia whose new orange shirt, given to her by her grandmother, was taken away on her first day of residential school when she was six years old. Many in crowds across the country wore orange clothing printed with the words “Every Child Matters.”
Some marked the day by holding leaders to account. Speaking at a youth-led event on Parliament Hill, 18-year-old activist Autumn Peltier said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau must do more to advance reconciliation, such as by ensuring access to safe drinking water in Indigenous communities.
“Today is not a holiday. Today we recognize our strength, our perseverance and our voices. And our leadership in today’s society, and tomorrow,” said Ms. Peltier, who is the Anishinabek Nation’s chief water commissioner. She previously addressed the United Nations on water supply issues.
“I never planned to spend my life doing this, but I am committed, and I want our people to have access to clean water,” she said. “I would love collaboration, more actions taken towards these inequalities I speak about.”
“When I was 12, I came face to face with Prime Minister Trudeau and was told not to say anything. I spoke up and asked him for support for our people. The highest figure in our country made me a promise to protect the water and people, and, five years later, I’m still waiting. We shall continue to be strong and step forward together. Healing is possible and there is hope.”
Over more than a century, at least 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children were removed from their families and sent to residential schools, where they were punished for speaking their languages and practising their cultures. Many children experienced physical, emotional and sexual abuse. Thousands of them never came home.
uring a speech at Niagara Falls, Mr. Trudeau said the day was about truth. “We all need to open our eyes to the truth of how Canada evolved and came to be, and how we need to make deliberate choices to undo the falsehoods and the wrongness that is part of it,” he said.
In Halifax, hundreds gathered to mark the day. Mi’kmaw elder Alan Knockwood told the crowd that, as the community comes together to reflect on Canada’s legacy of colonialism, the children lost in the residential school system are “here in our hearts and they are with us here.”
He led a prayer in English and in Mi’kmaq.
“My language is still alive, but residential school survivors like myself have a difficult time speaking it because it was beaten out of me. But I’m still here,” he said. “Survivors from residential schools are part of you, and now our legacy is that it will never happen again. And that’s because all of you here will not allow it to happen again.”
With reports from Bill Curry and The Canadian Press
The Canadian Press