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Politics Federal government to declare new statutory holiday to mark painful residential-school legacy

Perry Bellegarde is sworn in after being re-elected as the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations in Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday July 25, 2018.

BEN NELMS/The Canadian Press

The federal government is consulting with Indigenous groups before declaring a national statutory holiday to mark the painful legacy of Canada’s Indian residential schools.

The main sticking point has been choosing a date for the annual event.

“The overall picture is that it is important to have that day set aside so Canadians continually get it and will never ever forget the impact of genocide in the residential schools on Indigenous peoples,” Perry Bellegarde, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), said in a recent telephone interview.

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The AFN is among several groups the federal government has consulted as it prepares to announce the creation of what is expected to be known as the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation – one of the 94 calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which spent years investigating the abuse of children at the church-run schools.

The AFN initially said the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation should be on June 21, which is National Indigenous Peoples Day. But the government was concerned that would be too close to St. Jean Baptiste Day, a Quebec holiday that is celebrated on June 24, and also too close to Canada Day.

The next choice was Orange Shirt Day, Sept. 30, a date that is near the time of year when children were separated from their families to attend the residential schools. It was named after the shiny orange shirt that was given to six-year-old Phyllis Webstad by her grandmother in 1973 and taken from her and never returned when she attended the St. Joseph Mission School in Williams Lake, B.C.

“We’re pushing to advocate for a national day, a statutory holiday, for reconciliation, whether that be June 21, or that be Orange Shirt on Sept. 30,” Mr. Bellegarde said.

The Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, which represents Canada’s Inuit people, says the government has discussed the issue of the statutory holiday with the organization, but not engaged in formal negotiations.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised in late 2015 to enact all of the TRC’s calls to action, although the government has since clarified that the commitment extends only to the 76 that fall within federal jurisdiction. Although 27 of its responses to the commission’s recommendations are still in the very early planning stages, government officials said efforts to create a national statutory holiday are well under way.

The Department of Canadian Heritage said in an e-mail on Tuesday that the “day will be developed in consultation with the First Nations, Inuit and Métis people to ensure it is meaningful and truthful.”

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After becoming a federal statutory holiday, the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation would be a day off work for federal employees. Provinces and territories would then have to amend their own labour codes if they choose to commemorate the history of the residential schools in the same fashion.

The TRC found that the schools, which operated for more than 100 years, were a system of cultural genocide. Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, said it was important to withdraw children from the influence of their parents and “put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.”

At the moment, there are just five national statutory holidays: New Year’s Day, Good Friday, Canada Day, Labour Day and Christmas Day. The remaining holidays are marked with a patchwork of days off across Canada, with each province and territory setting its own schedule.

In March of this year, Remembrance Day was made a legal holiday throughout Canada by an Act of Parliament. It has been a paid day off in all provinces and territories except Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and Manitoba, and it will remain a regular working day in those jurisdictions unless they decide to observe it.

The Royal Canadian Legion, however, has opposed making Remembrance Day a statutory holiday to honour Canadians who died during war.

“We do not feel that making the day a holiday will achieve the ultimate goal of perpetuating remembrance,” the Legion has explained in a statement. “If Remembrance Day were a holiday, for many, the two minutes of silence may get missed in the bustle of a day off.”

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