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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau escorts Inuk survivor Elder Levinia Brown on the eve of Canada's first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, honouring the lost children and survivors of Indigenous residential schools, their families and communities on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Sept. 29.BLAIR GABLE/Reuters

Thursday marks Canada’s first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. It arrives during a particularly painful year in the lives of Indigenous people across the country.

The discovery in May of the remains of 215 children buried at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, followed in June by the discovery of 751 unmarked graves near the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, brought home in terrible detail the horrors of a state-run program that harmed generations of Indigenous people in Canada.

Those nameless victims of a heartless and racist government policy, along with all of the at least 4,100 who died while in residential schools, and the thousands more who survived, will be foremost in the minds of their families and descendants on Thursday.

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And, also, in the minds of the many non-Indigenous Canadians who this year were shaken by the discovery of so many unmarked residential school graves.

A survey done this month by the Environics Institute found that, compared with a similar one done in 2016, twice as many of those surveyed mentioned residential school abuses and government mistreatment as the first things that come to mind when they think of Indigenous people.

Given that remembrance of the children stolen from their families and placed in the hands of uncaring – and often physically and sexually abusive – school staff is the goal of this new statutory federal holiday, the arrival of the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is timely.

Like Remembrance Day, it can be used by schools and governments to increase awareness of the past, and of the suffering of people who were forcibly conscripted into a different kind of war.

But wearing an orange shirt every Sept. 30 is just a start. While laudable and important, Canada’s new annual day of reckoning will serve its best possible use if it pushes governments at all levels to work more quickly to address the direct consequences of the residential school system.

They include a number of continuing and interlinked facts of life for Indigenous people that demonstrate the degree to which they unjustly lag behind Canadian society.

A big one is the lack of safe drinking water in First Nations communities. In the 2015 election campaign, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau promised he’d lift all long-term advisories within five years. There were 105 at the time; Ottawa has since fixed 117, but new ones emerged and 45 remain.

Another is the high incarceration rate of Indigenous people in federal prisons. Indigenous people represent 5 per cent of Canada’s population, but in 2020 they made up 30 per cent of all federal inmates. Five years ago, the number was 25 per cent. They are also overrepresented in maximum security institutions and in solitary confinement.

There are similar inequities in child foster care. Barely 8 per cent of children aged 4 and under in Canada are Indigenous, yet in 2018 they accounted for half of all children of that age in foster care.

Other issues facing Indigenous people include higher rates of poverty, lower rates of high-school completion, a disproportionate likelihood of being the victim of a violent crime, subpar housing conditions on reserves, and the glacial pace of some treaty negotiations.

The picture is not entirely bleak. Indigenous peoples are the fastest growing cohort in Canada, with a population that rose by 42.5 per cent between 2006 and 2016. Indigenous rights have repeatedly been asserted in Canadian courts, and in the development of natural resources on their territories.

In the recent federal election, there were at least 77 Indigenous candidates running for office, compared with 62 in 2019. And Indigenous issues were a bigger part of the major parties’ platforms.

But while these are positive developments, the bottom line for any stated goal of reconciliation should be that all Indigenous people, whether they live on a reserve or in a city, enjoy the same quality of life as other Canadians.

The first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is an opportunity to reflect on the past and acknowledge the harms done by the residential school system. It needs to be more than that, though. It needs to be a day that prompts all Canadians to start asking about the future, and why it’s taking so long to get here.

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