The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is on September 30 and was first observed as a national public holiday in 2021. As a public holiday, some shops and businesses will be closed, as will public services such as banks, government offices, and Canada Post. It is a day to remember the victims of the Indian residential school system. The day is also known as Orange Shirt Day
As far back as 1616, there is a reference to the founder of Quebec and New France, Samuel de Champlain, talking about converting the “heathen savages” into New Frenchmen. At the time native Indians were perceived as uncivilized and espousing unchristian values which needed to be ‘converted’ through education.
While there were many attempts to convert native Indians to Christian values there was nothing as formal as an education system until the 1800s. One of the first examples of a Residential School was the Mohawk Institute Residential School which ran from 1831 until 1970.
The expansion of the residential school system is due in part to Charles Bagot, the Governor of the Province of Canada who wrote a report in 1844 called ‘Affairs On The Indians In Canada’. In this report, there were five general recommendations, three of which were aimed at educating native Indians.
3. That the efforts of the Government should be directed to educating the young, and to weaning those advanced in life from their feelings and habits of independence
4. That, for this service, schools should be established, and Missionaries and teachers be supported at each settlement, and that their efficiency should be carefully watched over.
5. That in addition to Common Schools, as many manual labour, or industrial schools, should be established, as the funds applicable to such a purpose will admit.
It was partly due to the recommendations in the report (above) that the Government, with support from the church in Canada, began running Canadian schools for Aboriginal children. The aim was to reeducate and indoctrinate these children into Canadian society and to give them ‘Christian’ values.
Attendance at these schools became compulsory in 1894 when an amendment to the Indian Act was added which threatened “arrest and conveyance to school, and detention there,” of “truant children and of children who are prevented by their parents or guardians from attending”. The law allowed for fines and imprisonment of parents who didn’t allow their children to attend.
At its peak, 139 residential schools were in operation, taking over 150,000 children away from their families and the rituals and traditions of their indigenous communities.
A cruel legacy
The environment in these residential schools was extremely cruel and compassionless. In 2008 the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was founded and given the job of researching and documenting what life was like for children attending an Indian residential school.
The Commission spoke to over 6000 survivors of the Residential System and found extensive patterns of abuse and criminality. Children were forced to have their hair cut, their names changed, they were refused access to their parents, and often had to live in unsafe and dangerous conditions. The Commission also uncovered historic allegations of sexual abuse, assault, and humiliation.
In May 2021 there was a discovery of a mass grave at one of the sites of a former school named ‘Kamloops’. After surveying the area it is estimated that the bodies of 200 children could be located there. Following this discovery, there was a time of national grief as the nation came to terms with what happened and decided how to respond and seek reconciliation. The government responded by making The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation a public holiday.
As a new public holiday with the support and funding of the national and local government, there are many ways to observe the day and participate.
The first thing you can do to remember National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is wear an orange shirt. Since the day has been celebrated since 2013 as Orange Shirt Day, people still remember the day by wearing orange clothing. They do this in honor of Phyllis (Jack) Webstad’s testimony of her first day in a Residential School where she was stripped and had her new orange shirt taken off her.
As part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s role, several reports were produced that went into detail to document what happened, the entire history of Residential Schools, and the stories of people affected by them. These can be easily accessed online from the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation website and provide a great deal of information and insight into our history.
A day of reflection
On the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, we should also dedicate some time to reflecting on the mistakes we made as a young nation. And we should remember the victims of those crimes that occurred in Residential Schools as we firm our resolve to avoid the same mistakes in the future.
For more go to: National Day for Truth and Reconciliation