Earlier this year, the federal government passed legislation to declare September 30th a statutory holiday called National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. This day is meant to provide Canadians the opportunity to “recognize and commemorate the legacy of residential schools”. September 30th also coincides with Orange Shirt Day, which began in 2013 and involved wearing orange to honour the Indigenous children forced to leave their homes to attend residential schools. The City of Vaughan has proclaimed September 30th to be Orange Shirt Day and here at Vaughan Public Libraries, we are hoping to use this day to provide people with the knowledge they need to recognize the importance of this new holiday and provide resources for further learning.
This post will be broken down into a Q&A style to help unpack some of the necessary and important concepts at the core of this day. Most information comes from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and its accompanying summary, which was created to listen and report on the experiences from residential school Survivors. Some of the topics discussed may be hard to read but we acknowledge that bearing witness to the truth is all in part of the reconciliation process.
What were residential schools?
Residential schools were schools designed for Indigenous children for the purpose of assimilation, which is now acknowledged as a form of cultural genocide in which policies and practices were created to “cause Aboriginal peoples to cease to exist as distinct legal, social, cultural, religious, and racial entities in Canada” (TRC, 2015, p. 1). This practice was done by separating children from their families in order to indoctrinate them into Euro-Christian Canadian society. While it was established by Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, the practice continued for well over 100 years (TRC, 2015, p. V). These schools were notorious for child abuse and a class action lawsuit led to the creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a commission that heard from Survivors and their descendants in order to create a robust report that details the experiences of Survivors and recommendations for reconciliation.
While the report was published in 2015, there has been more recent discussion about residential schools in the news this year. In May, it was reported that Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc used ground-penetrating radar to find 200 potential unmarked burial sites near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. Since then, more Indigenous communities across Canada have launched similar investigations. This news was distressing to many in the country and has resulted in flags at federal buildings to be at half-mast, which they continue to be at to this day.
What does “Truth and Reconciliation” mean?
Part of acknowledging the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is also establishing what it means. According to the TRC, “reconciliation is about establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in this country. In order for that to happen, there has to be awareness of the past, acknowledgement of the harm that has been inflicted, atonement for the causes, and action to change behaviour” (TRC, 2015, 6-7). This means that learning about the horrors of residential schools is part of staring the reconciliation process. The TRC mandate defines reconciliation as “an ongoing individual and collective process, and will require commitment from all those affected including First Nations, Inuit and Métis former Indian Residential School (IRS) students, their families, communities, religious entities, former school employees, government and the people of Canada” (TRC, 2015, p. 339), which emphasizes that it is important for all people in Canada to know about Canada’s past to help better shape its future.
While reconciliation may sound as if it is all about past action, it is also about ongoing commitment. The TRC defines this best in their report, “Reconciliation is not about “closing a sad chapter of Canada’s past,” but about opening new healing pathways of reconciliation that are forged in truth and justice. We are mindful that knowing the truth about what happened in residential schools in and of itself does not necessarily lead to reconciliation. Yet, the importance of truth telling in its own right should not be underestimated; it restores the human dignity of victims of violence and calls governments and citizens to account. Without truth, justice is not served, healing cannot happen, and there can be no genuine reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in Canada” (TRC, 2015, p. 12). It may be distressing to keep up with recent news but it is important to learn the truth and stay informed so that justice can happen.
Why a statutory holiday?
This day is one of 94 recommendations/calls to action made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) that was published in 2015 in their summary of the final report. These 94 calls to action outline the ways in which policies and processes can be made to help the process of reconciliation and they include mandates in many categories such as child welfare, education, language and culture, health, justice, Church apologies, and more (TRC, 2015, p. 319-337). The calls to action are an important part of starting the process of reconciliation, and some of the recommendations have already been put into effect such as a recommendation to change the Canadian citizenship oath to include mention of Indigenous Peoples and treaties (TRC, 2015, P. 337). The citizenship oath states that those who swear it must uphold “The laws of Canada / Including the Constitution / Which recognizes and affirms / The Aboriginal and treaty rights of / First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples”.
More Resources & Further Reading:
If you’d like to learn more, you may refer directly to the report mentioned above from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. While it is a lengthy document, it includes first-hand accounts from Survivors and also describes the process by which the committee created the document.
There is also a virtual event happening for all youth in grades 5 – 12 for Truth and Reconciliation Week put on by The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. This event will include conversations about treaties and land claims, the residential schools system, and will also feature a moving tribute to children who never returned home from residential schools.
For more information about Orange Shirt Day, you can consult the creator’s official website and story.
You are also welcome to refer to VPL’s collection of digital resources and recommendations for further reading.
We also believe that it is necessary to read stories and novels by Indigenous peoples that is focused on a wide range of topics. To this end, we have staff lists on the Vaughan Public Libraries catalogue where you can request items directly from our collection:
- VaughanPL: National Day for Truth and Reconciliation: this staff list contains memoirs and fiction of first-hand accounts from Survivors and descendants of Survivors of residential schools.
- VaughanPL: Kids: National Day for Truth and Reconciliation: this staff list contains books written for children about residential schools and the legacy of residential schools for Indigenous people.
- VaughanPL: National Indigenous History Month and National Indigenous Peoples Day: this list includes recent books by Indigenous authors that includes both fiction and non-fiction.
- VaughanPL: Aboriginal and Indigenous Voices: this list includes “commentary and fiction, stories and observations about the world offered through an Indigenous or Aboriginal lens”.