Provincial governments are facing calls to make the new federal National Day for Truth and Reconciliation a statutory holiday so all Canadians can reflect on the dark and painful history of residential schools.
Thursday will mark the first time a federal statutory holiday will honour the memory of the children who died in residential schools, as well as survivors, their families and communities. It is the result of legislative amendments in Parliament and applies to federal employees and federally regulated workplaces.
The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, which is a response to one of the 94 calls to action issued by the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission, will coincide with Orange Shirt Day, which also aims to raise awareness about residential schools. The day comes at a critical juncture in history after the recent findings of unmarked burial sites of former residential-school students in Indigenous communities across the country that touched off an outpouring of support from Canadians.
The discovery of the burial sites was deemed by many politicians to be a moment of reckoning for the country and its need to come to terms with what happened in residential schools and the cascading effects the system had on the lives of Indigenous people today.
Provincial governments, including those of British Columbia, Manitoba and Nova Scotia, have outlined plans to observe the holiday, noting it offers an opportunity for Canadians to better understand history as part of efforts toward reconciliation.
Former senator Murray Sinclair, who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which spent six years examining the impacts of residential schools in Canada, told The Globe and Mail on Tuesday that the commission thought it was important for there to be a federal acknowledgment to honour those who went through the residential-school system, to memorialize those who died and to recognize that residential schools should never have existed.
Mr. Sinclair also said the creation of a statutory holiday at the provincial level makes sense if those governments are “going to be serious” about committing to reconciliation, instead of leaving it up to the private sector to determine whether or not they will allow employees to participate, he added.
“It isn’t going to happen unless Canadians generally stand up and say to their provincial governments and their provincial leaders, ‘You have to get in line with this issue,’ ” he said. “If they don’t, the provinces will continue to escape their responsibility for reconciliation in this very significant way.”
Stephanie Scott, executive director for the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, said Tuesday she also supports the need for the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation to be made a statutory holiday at the provincial level. She said every person – both Indigenous and non-Indigenous – has a responsibility to fulfill the TRC’s calls to action, to learn and educate themselves, and to “walk that path of reconciliation.”
First Nations child advocate Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, said premiers should reflect on the real life-and-death battles that children fought in residential schools. “Why isn’t that worth one day out of the year for the public to learn, reflect and to be accountable for the TRC’s calls to action?”
On Monday, Manitoba Premier Kelvin Goertzen said Manitobans and Canadians at large have “a collective responsibility to acknowledge and learn from the mistakes of our past, so that we can move forward together in the spirit of reconciliation.”
B.C. Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Minister Murray Rankin also said his province would provide $1.5-million to Indigenous organizations for urgent services for residential-school survivors as a result of the findings at former residential schools.
Ontario officials say the province is also working with Indigenous partners, survivors and affected families to ensure there is respectful recognition of the day within the province, similar to Remembrance Day.
The provincial public service will recognize Thursday as a day of commemoration to reflect on the tragic history and continuing legacy of residential schools, said Curtis Lindsay, a press secretary for Ontario’s Indigenous Affairs Minister, Greg Rickford.
“While the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is not a provincial public holiday this year, employers and employees may agree to treat this day as such, and some may be required to do so if it has been negotiated into collective agreements or employment contracts,” he said.
In a letter to Ontario Premier Doug Ford, Six Nations of the Grand River Chief Mark Hill expressed that his community was “most disappointed” that the province did not make Thursday a statutory holiday. The Chief said the past year has been particularly difficult for Indigenous communities whose “wounds were reopened upon the discovery of their lost children’s remains.”
For its part, the federal government is hopeful that all provinces and territories will move to make Sept. 30 a statutory holiday.
“We can see that it is something that is very important to Indigenous nations [and] Indigenous communities across the country,” Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault said in an interview. “It is my hope that over time everyone will be on board. I certainly didn’t think it was going to happen the first year.”
Many provinces and territories, as well as individual municipalities, have planned activities to mark the day, Mr. Guilbeault added, noting such initiatives are “very encouraging.”
The number for the National Indian Residential School Crisis Line is 1-866-925-4419. British Columbia has a First Nations and Indigenous Crisis Line offered through the KUU-US Crisis Line Society, toll-free at 1-800-588-8717.
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