September 30, 2021, marked the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in Canada (Bill C-5, An Act to amend the Bills of Exchange Act, the Interpretation Act and the Canada Labour Code). This federal statutory holiday was passed through legislative amendments made by Parliament earlier this year, receiving Royal Assent on June 3.
The aim for this holiday was set to ‘[honour] the lost children and Survivors of residential schools, their families and communities’. Residential schools were ‘government-sponsored’ and created by ‘Christian churches’ to ‘assimilate Indigenous children into Euro-Canadian culture’. Their focus was placed on conversion and education. Over 130 schools operated in Canada between 1831 and 1996. They ‘disrupted lives and communities, causing long-term problems among Indigenous peoples’. Therefore, public commemoration of the history and ongoing impacts of residential schools has become a valued and ‘vital component of the reconciliation process’.
To emphasise this focus of National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, the commemoration shares the same date as ‘Orange Shirt Day’ that began in 2013. ‘Orange Shirt Day’ similarly looks to honour the survivors of residential schools and also remembers the children that did not. It is an indigenous-led commemoration that reflects the story of Phyliss Webstad. Webstad, a Northern Secwepemc (Shuswap) from the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation had her orange shirt taken from her on her first day of school. Now, the shirt symbolises ‘the stripping away of culture, freedom and self-esteem experienced by Indigenous children over generations’. Wearing orange is a move to raise awareness of such experiences, and the school’s lasting impacts.
Other commemorations took place in the form of: illuminating Parliament Hill, Truth and Reconciliation Week’s educational event for students grades 5-12, a bilingual primetime CBC/Radio-Canada and APTN broadcast and APTN Sunrise Ceremony.
However, while National Truth and Reconciliation Day has been deemed a vital component of reconciliation, since the 30th there has been a great deal of debate surrounding its contribution to the process. There was a mixed response and uptake of the day itself, and the value of commemorations that did take place have also come under scrutiny.
Perhaps most notably, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been ‘widely criticised’ for decisions ‘to skip formal events’ ‘in what has since been deemed his ‘holiday snub’ (BBC). The Prime Minister claimed he would be holding private meetings in Ottawa, but was instead photographed with his family on a beach in Tofino, British Columbia. Private apologies to First Nations soon followed. A public apology was issued in an Ottawa press conference where he stated: ‘travelling on the 30th was a mistake and I regret it’. But criticism has continued.
Therefore, while indigenous communities approached the day with mixed emotions, they are also leaving it feeling the same. Particularly in light of how alongside the Prime Minister’s lack of uptake in the day’s commemoration, only ‘a handful of provincial and territorial governments [had] public servants and schools observe the day’ (Global News Canada). Leaving indigenous communities feeling disregarded, again.
Especially in noting that the origins of these mixed feelings are also founded in the broader ‘slow response’ (Global News Canada) to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s ‘94 calls to action’ under the Trudeau government:
‘as of June 30, 2021, 14 calls to action have been completed, 23 are in progress with projects underway, 37 are in progress with projects proposed, and 20 have yet to be started, according to the British Columbia Treaty Commission’.
Nonetheless, despite the mixed reactions the holiday’s first year has seen, there is a general consensus that it is only the Holiday’s first year and is only the first step toward reconciliation. Where for now the way to ‘celebrate such a tragedy’ (Global News Canada) and to aid true reconciliation is, as put by Assembly of First Nations National Chief RoseAnne Archibald, about ‘learning, sharing and growing as a country’.
And to finally echo the words of Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, in the future ‘what the test of the success of this day will be, ‘is how many people actually take action to make reconciliation real’.