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Canada marks National Day for Truth and Reconciliation with events across country

As Canadians came together to commemorate the third National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, Caryn Ceolin with what residential school survivors and Indigenous leaders say needs to be done to advance reconciliation in this country.

By Nicole Thompson and Alessia Passafiume, The Canadian Press

Seas of orange flooded events across the country on Saturday as Canadians gathered to acknowledge systemic oppression of Indigenous people and observe the third annual National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

The federal statutory holiday, adapted from the grassroots Orange Shirt Day, recognizes the abuse suffered by Inuit, First Nations and Metis people at hundreds of state- and church-run residential schools.

Gov.-Gen. Mary Simon, speaking at a ceremony in Ottawa, said that while Canada has moved forward on reconciliation in recent years, it still has far to go.

“It’s really important to remember that even though we are making progress on bigger issues, it’s not necessarily having an impact at the community level,” said Simon, who is Inuk and the first Indigenous governor general.

That appeared to be the case in a remote Indigenous community in northwestern British Columbia, where there was no formal recognition of the day.

Johnny Morven, who manages the only convenience store and gas station at Gitlaxt’aamiks, part of the Nisga’a Nation, said he doesn’t close on holidays, even the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

“I honour the loss and I think about my grandmother who went to residential school, but I’m here today.”

Morven, 37, said he was also running the store on Friday when most Nisga’a Nation members were at the nearby village of Laxgalts’ap for a celebration to welcome home a totem pole returned by the National Museum of Scotland after an absence of almost 100 years.

The House of Ni’isjoohl memorial totem was initially taken without consent, and Indigenous leaders have praised its return as an act of reconciliation in and of itself that also demonstrates how meaningful dialogue can fundamentally transform once precarious relationships with Indigenous Peoples.

Back in Ottawa, Chief Dylan Whiteduck of Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg said the consequences of the residential school system can be felt to this day, including the loss of Indigenous language speakers.

“Today, First Nations communities have goals,” he said. “We seek prosperity. We want a sustainable future. And we want our Indigenous languages back. But unfortunately, we are in survival mode, and this is unacceptable.

“We ask you to help us achieve these goals. Let us all work towards economic reconciliation and reshape this great country. Not for today, but for the next seven generations.”

People participating in the Orange Shirt Day Survivors Walk pass the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg on Saturday, September 30, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/David Lipnowski

Residential school survivors and Indigenous leaders were among the crowd of hundreds who converged on Parliament Hill for the commemorative event, where smudge wafted through the air.

A red banner with the names of children who didn’t make it home from residential schools was carried through the crowd, prompting people to rise as a sign of respect as it made its way to the stage.

Attendees were invited to place shoes on the stage as a symbol to remember those children, and within minutes the front of the platform was covered with moccasins and other footwear.

The federal statutory holiday was created in response to one of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 calls to action, after ground penetrating radar found unmarked graves near the site of a former residential school outside of Kamloops, B.C.

It’s an evolution of Orange Shirt Day, an initiative started in 2013 inspired by Phyllis Webstad’s story of having the orange shirt her grandmother gave her taken away when she arrived at residential school.

Joanna Bernard, interim national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, used the day to urge the government to implement the rest of the commission’s calls to action, noting only 13 have been completed so far — three of them in the last year.

Elsewhere, parents, grandparents and children gathered at St. Mary’s First Nation in Fredericton to mark the day. Excited children participated in drumming circles, singing and dancing on a warm Saturday.

Gail Standingready, a member of Birdtail Sioux Nation in Manitoba who now lives in Fredericton, spoke at the event about surviving the ’60s Scoop and being the daughter of parents who endured the residential school system.

“It’s been a very traumatizing life, and to share that life with the people here I think is important because if we don’t share our stories, I’m afraid that it’s going to be forgotten about,” she said. “For as long as I’m living, sharing my story is going to be something that I will do.”

People take part in a march on National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in Montreal, Saturday, September 30, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

In Montreal, hundreds of orange-clad marchers walked from the base of Mount Royal to the pedestal where a statue of John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister and an architect of the residential school system, stood until protestors toppled it in 2020.

Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal Executive Director Na’kuset, who uses only one name, said she hopes the march helps “push the government to do better” and address systemic racism against Indigenous people.

Quebec Premier François Legault has denied the existence of systemic racism in the province, and the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is not a statutory holiday at the provincial level.

“This day is not just one day. It should actually be every single day,” Na’kuset said.

In Winnipeg, thousands marched downtown and attended a powwow at Canada Life Centre, the arena that is home to the Winnipeg Jets.

“The whole purpose of (residential schools) was to kill the Indian in the child, to kill who they were, who they were born to, not to know their language, not to know their culture,” said Cathy Merrick, grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs. “But that’s going to change with our people. All of you here today are going to change that.”

Manitoba NDP Leader Wab Kinew, the son of a residential school survivor, reiterated his party’s promise to make Orange Shirt Day a statutory provincial holiday if elected on Tuesday.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who was in Saskatchewan to observe the day, said the occasion is one to recognize sadness, anger and frustration.

‘It’s a challenging day,” he said. “It’s a day where all Canadians need to confront the fact that our past was not what we would want it to be.”

There are many, he said, who would like to disregard what happened.

“I challenge those people,” he said. “And I think we all would challenge them to reflect on the fact that recognizing the truth of our past, coming to grips with it, working to atone and working to build a stronger and better future, is the only way we can be that country we know we should be.”

In Squamish, B.C., several hundred people gathered at an event where Squamish Nation member Jazmyn Williams spoke about her experiences as an intergenerational survivor whose biological father attended residential school.

“Now that I have my own baby, I can’t imagine what it was like for my great-grandma to have to send her children to these schools, for them to be taken from her. It would break my heart,” said Williams, whose daughter was born in August.

“I can’t imagine … what our communities were like when all of our children were gone and what that felt like for them,” she said.

Hundreds also took part in a march at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, where flags were flying at half-mast outside city buildings to honour Indigenous children who never returned home from residential schools.

With files from Dirk Meissner in Gitlaxt’aamiks, B.C., Hina Alam in Fredericton, Thomas MacDonald in Montreal, Steve Lambert in Winnipeg and Jeremy Simes in La Ronge, Sask.

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