The new federal statutory holiday on September 30 drew a great deal of attention to Canada’s first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. Of course, the initial buzz was all about whether or not one had the day off.
Federally regulated businesses like the banks and Canada Post closed. However, Ontario’s refusal to make it a statutory holiday (which upset some Indigenous leaders) left private and provincially regulated organizations to make their own decisions.
While schools and universities remained open, Ontario Public Service employees were given a personal day. Many municipalities including Mississauga, Brampton, and the Region of Peel also closed their facilities.
After everyone had hemmed and hawed over the holiday, came questions about the significance of the date and how one should observe it. As many uninformed South Asian immigrants struggled to make sense of the new holiday, I did a bit of digging to find answers to their questions.
What is National Day for Truth and Reconciliation?
Simply put it is a day to commemorate the lost children as well as the survivors of residential schools, their families, and communities.
The new federal statutory holiday was approved on June 3, a few days after the discovery of 215 potential burial sites on the grounds of a former residential school in Kamloops, BC. Weeks later, a preliminary finding of 751 unmarked graves at a cemetery near the former Marieval Indian Residential School east of Regina was announced. And since then, more than 300 other potential burial sites were identified, and searches are underway across Canada.
Public acknowledgement of the tragic and painful history of residential schools is seen as a vital component of the reconciliation process. For years survivors have advocated for recognition and reparations while demanding accountability for the harm caused.
There were 140 federally run Indian Residential Schools which operated in Canada between 1831 and 1998. The last school closed around 23 years ago.
Why was September 30 chosen?
There is little or no explanation about the choice of date.
According to news reports, June 21, which is National Indigenous Peoples Day, was originally proposed. But after consultation with Indigenous groups and individuals from across Canada, the date was set for September 30 instead.
A University of British Columbia post says that the September date was chosen because it was the time of year when Indigenous children were removed from their families and forced to attend residential schools. A similar reference is made on the ‘Orange Shirt Day’ website which could be where the university got their explanation from.
Why wear orange on Truth and Reconciliation Day?
On this first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, the federal government encouraged all Canadians to wear orange to raise awareness of the tragic legacy of residential schools and to honour the thousands of survivors.
Why orange? Because September 30 is also Orange Shirt Day! The colour relates to the experience of residential school survivor Phyllis Webstad whose new orange shirt bought by her grandmother was taken away from her on the first day of school. She was just six years old at the time.
This day has come to symbolize the stripping away of the culture, freedom, and self-esteem of Indigenous children over generations.
As per the official website, Orange Shirt Day is a legacy of the St. Joseph Mission Residential School (1891-1981) Commemoration Project and Reunion events that took place in Williams Lake, BC, Canada, in May 2013.
The project which initially brought residential school survivors, their families and local authorities together advocates for a national conversation about the traumatic experience which it believes can become a bridge to reconciliation for all Canadians. It also offers ideas and resources for those who want to commemorate Orange Shirt Day.
What does this day mean for non-Indigenous Canadians?
It offers us an opportunity to listen, learn and reflect on the tragic experiences of the Indigenous people as well as their contribution to Canada.
Acknowledging the suffering of the First Nations people and respecting their culture are critical to the reconciliation process. However to heal the hurt and bridge the gap, more meaningful interaction on a personal and community level is required. But to achieve this goal we must first understand the impact of colonialism and immigration on Indigenous communities.
Truth and Reconciliation Day should be a collective national effort towards this healing process.
Let us never forget that it is their land we occupy!