Thousands of people blazed a trail of orange across the country on Thursday to mark the inaugural National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, as they reflected on past and present harms suffered by Indigenous peoples.
The bright orange hue, which has come to be associated with residential-school survivors, was everywhere: on participants’ shirts, their flags, their ribbon skirts. Many who attended the events held in various cities and smaller communities said the day was one of reflection, listening and learning – but that working toward truth and reconciliation can’t end there. Action, they said, is needed throughout the year, and survivors must be central to the process.
The federal statutory holiday was created in response to a call to action in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report, which was released in 2015. The push for an official observance was bolstered over the past year by revelations about unmarked graves near the sites of four former Indian residential schools. The grim finds retraumatized survivors, but also validated what they had known for decades about those institutions’ abusive legacies.
News of the unmarked burials also shook up non-Indigenous Canadians, many of whom have begun to support calls to confront Canada’s history of forced assimilation of Indigenous peoples. For more than a century, cultural extermination was the stated intent of the country’s dozens of government and church-run residential schools. The last one closed in 1996.
The day’s events included sunrise ceremonies, walks, powwows, flag-raisings and speeches from politicians and other leaders, in which they committed to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.
Here’s how people in different parts of Canada spent the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
Sheila DeCorte was shocked when she recently learned from her sister that their mother, a residential school survivor, had spoken the Anishinaabemowin language as a young girl.
“She never shared that with us as children,” Ms. DeCorte said.
Students at residential schools were punished, often violently, for speaking their Indigenous languages.
On Thursday, Ms. DeCorte, who sits on Thunder Bay’s Anishinaabe Elders Advisory Council and is a Fort William First Nation member and water protector, shared water teachings at a cedar-tree planting ceremony put on by the city.
“Without water, there would be no life. Doesn’t matter who you are, or what you are. If you’re a tree or a plant, you still need water,” she said.
The cedar tree she helped plant will be part of a memorial to the children, families and communities affected by residential schools.
Ms. DeCorte said now is an important time for Indigenous people to speak up and share their truths.
“It’s pretty hard for many of the survivors, because of the news of all these mass graves being discovered and all these children. Even though that was all shared in the Truth and Reconciliation [Commission report] by the survivors, it wasn’t believed. How do you deny that now? You can’t deny that debwewin now,” she said, using the Anishinaabemowin word for “truth.”
She added that she was encouraged by the number of people wearing orange shirts to commemorate the new national day, which coincides with Orange Shirt Day, an event to honour residential-school survivors that Indigenous people have observed annually since 2013.
“That shows that they’re supporting this day and wanting to learn the true history of our people.”
People who want to support survivors can also read the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 calls to action and “take at least one of those calls to action and do something with it,” she said.
– Willow Fiddler
Cowessess First Nation
Close to 200 people gathered on Thursday at the site where the Marieval Indian Residential School once stood. The institution opened in 1898, and the Cowessess First Nation’s leadership tore it down in 1997.
Residential-school survivors, their families and other community members attended an event in honour of the children who went to Marieval. The participants held a powwow on the very land where students were once forbidden from practising their traditional dances.
Rylie Delorme, a 17-year-old executive chairperson for the Cowessess Youth Council, said hearing survivors speak about the injustices they suffered made clear the impact that the residential school experience continues to have on today’s Indigenous youth.
“We’re the voices of the future. It’s something that us youth have to take in, because we also help the residential-school survivors on their healing journey,” she said.
Although Marieval was gone by the time she was born, the legacy of residential schools has made it more difficult for her to connect with her heritage.
“I have to relearn my language. I have to relearn my teachings. I have to relearn my traditional teachings that my family carried on before residential school,” she said.
“That tugs at my heart, and it breaks my heart, because I would have loved to be able to speak Cree and my native tongue, and have my sacred traditions with me as I grew up, instead of having them stripped away.”
On Wednesday, Chief Cadmus Delorme said Cowessess had learned the identities of about 300 people buried near the school. (The nation said in June that there are as many as 751 unmarked graves on the site.) But he said he didn’t know how many of those whose names have been discovered so far were children who attended Marieval.
– Ntawnis Piapot
Chiefs from some of New Brunswick’s largest Mi’kmaq communities used the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation to draw attention to a long-forgotten chapter in the province’s history: the legacy of day schools.
While New Brunswick didn’t have residential schools, day schools, which began operating in the province in the 18th century, served the same purpose: separating Indigenous children from their families, language and culture. Historians say these schools essentially turned children into indentured servants for white settlers.
Alvery Paul, Chief of the Esgenoopetitj First Nation, said most people in the province are unaware of this history. He and other Mi’kmaq leaders called on the provincial government to lead an in-depth investigation into the records of New Brunswick’s day schools, such as the Sussex Vale Indian Day School. In a statement on Thursday, he demanded concrete action to show Indigenous peoples that past abuse won’t be forgotten.
“It is imperative to recognize the injustices of the past. As a people, we need healing and forward thinking. Uncovering hidden history is a first step that cannot be taken lightly. The First Nations peoples of New Brunswick deserve the truth,” he said in the statement.
Indigenous groups across Atlantic Canada marked the national day with a wide range of events, including prayers, flag-raising and drum performances on the Halifax waterfront; a march in Cornerbrook, N.L.; and the unveiling of a bust of celebrated Mi’kmaw educator Elsie Basque at Nova Scotia’s Université Sainte-Anne.
On Prince Edward Island, speakers from the Native Council of PEI addressed a committee of provincial MLAs as part of a briefing on Indigenous reconciliation.
“We continue to be invisible by this province, like we don’t exist. We are faceless people that are struggling with our children being taken away, and our families struggling with mental health and addictions,” Lisa Cooper, chief and president of the council, said.
The previous day, in Elsipogtog First Nation, a funeral mass was held for elder Sarah Simon. Ms. Simon, a former band councillor and mother of 19, was believed to have been the oldest survivor of the Shubenacadie residential school in Nova Scotia. She died last weekend in hospital at the age of 96.
– Greg Mercer
On Thursday, as people quietly walked by 215 pairs of little shoes that have been on display on Parliament Hill for weeks in memory of residential-school victims, Pitsulala Lita stopped everyone in their tracks by raising her voice.
She spoke to the crowd about the need for there to be no more stolen sisters – a reference to Canada’s disproportionately large number of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
“It’s not over,” Ms. Lita yelled. “It’s not only today.”
Ms. Lita said in an interview that the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation has value. But, she said, “We cannot forget this on any day.”
Indigenous women and girls who have gone missing have been ignored, she added.
“We need to let Canada know that we will not be putting up with any more racism,” she said. “We will fight to be heard.”
In a joint statement, several federal cabinet ministers said that the new national day is a solemn commemoration, and that it “marks another step toward recognizing the wrongs committed by the residential-school policy, acknowledging the ongoing impacts and reflecting on actions to be taken each day on the path of reconciliation.”
Margaret Mark, from Fort Albany First Nation, said on Thursday that the day was bittersweet, because the legacies of Indigenous peoples in Canada have not yet been fully understood.
Ms. Mark, who attended St. Anne’s Residential School, said she believes that the attention being paid to unmarked graves at former school sites will help bring about that understanding.
“I think the children that were discovered are opening that door for discoveries, for stories to be heard, for Canada to hear what we have to say,” she said.
Regina Sutherland, of Kashechewan First Nation, who also attended St. Anne’s, and whose parents are also residential-school survivors, said Thursday’s national observance was something she didn’t think was possible when she was a child. She called it a “special day.”
Ms. Sutherland added that Canada needs to hear the stories of residential school survivors, and that healing is required.
– Kristy Kirkup
Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation
The Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation’s announcement in May that it had discovered about 200 unmarked graves on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School drew international attention to Canada’s past mistreatment of Indigenous peoples.
On Thursday, Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir, the nation’s leader, acknowledged that Canadians have finally begun to accept the truth about the colonial education system’s devastating effects on Indigenous survivors and their families.
Restitution – and, potentially, retribution through the criminal justice system – will be an important milestone on the path toward full reconciliation, Kukpi7 Casimir said at a news conference in the nation’s large powwow arbour, before the day’s ceremonial singing and drumming kicked off.
To that end, she announced that Ottawa is close to appointing a special interlocutor, who will work with First Nations across the country to protect undocumented and unmarked burial sites strewn across the former grounds of Canada’s many residential schools.
“I know many of our members have stated, ‘Why is there no yellow [crime-scene] tape here? Why is this not taken seriously?’” she told reporters. “Well, we are all taking it seriously, and we are grateful that there is that appointment, and that’s going to be in collaboration with us as First Nations.”
The events of last week revived some of the emotions associated with the summer’s unmarked-grave discoveries, Kukpi7 Casimir told reporters. Last Friday, as Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc began filming a video for a National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation special holiday broadcast, she said, news broke of the Catholic Bishops of Canada “cynically” apologizing for the trauma and suffering caused by the church’s involvement in the residential school system.
“In reviewing this apology, I had a very disturbing sense of déjà vu,” Kukpi7 Casimir said.
– Mike Hager
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