How survivors fought to create Canada's first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation
'The truth comes first, and the truth is not finished being told,' says survivor Phyllis Webstad
WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
Eddy Charlie, a member of the Cowichan Nation and a survivor of the Kuper Island Residential School off the east coast of Vancouver Island, says he was first moved to speak out about his own experiences at residential school after overhearing a group of students at a research library dismiss their impact.
"I heard some people talking and one of the students said, 'I can't stand these Indigenous people. I wonder why they keep talking about residential schools. It doesn't make sense. It happened so long ago.' And he said they should forget about this and stop talking about it," Charlie said.
"And I just felt sadness but also a rage because these were 150,000 children that were taken away from their homes against their will and placed in residential schools far from their families."
Thursday marks Canada's first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation — a statutory holiday to observe the impacts of the Canadian residential school system, a system funded by the government and largely administered by Christian churches from the 1870s until the last school closed in 1997.
Marking this day was a recommendation of Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but became a reality because of efforts from survivors like Charlie, and the national reckoning on deaths at residential schools sparked by the discovery of potential unmarked graves in Kamloops, B.C.
The commission, which was active between 2008 and 2015, documented the history and impacts of the residential school system. Survivors gave testimony about the lingering effects of the school system, the trauma they suffered, and often the physical, emotional and sexual abuse at the hands of their educators.
To date, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has identified more than 4,100 children who died while attending a residential school out of the more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children that were forced to attend.
- Do you know of a child who never came home from residential school? Or someone who worked at one? We would like to hear from you. Email our Indigenous-led team investigating the impacts of residential schools at email@example.com or call toll-free: 1-833-824-0800.
A shiny orange shirt becomes a symbol of loss
Still, the findings and the recommendations have been slow to pierce the mainstream national consciousness.
Residential school survivor Phyllis Webstad, a member of the Stswecem'c Xgat'tem First Nation, has been part of efforts to change that.
Webstad is the founder of Orange Shirt Day, which had taken place on Sept. 30 — the same day chosen for the National Truth and Reconciliation Day statutory holiday.
Webstad's orange shirt story has become a symbol of the destruction wrought by Indian residential schools and how it contributed to the loss of language and cultural knowledge, familial bonds, and connections to the land for many children and subsequent generations of Indigenous people.
When Webstad was forced to leave her home for St. Joseph's Mission and Indian Residential School near Williams Lake, B.C., her grandmother took her to town to buy her new clothes for school.
"I chose a shiny orange shirt. I just turned six in 1973 and that's kind of like the hippie age and everything was bright and so it was a bright, shiny shirt," Webstad recalled.
"When I got to the mission, my shirt was taken away and no matter how much I cried, or how I wanted it back, [that] my granny bought it for me, nobody would listen and I didn't ever wear it again. I don't have a memory of ever wearing it again."
'The children are behind it'
One of the Truth and Reconciliation's 94 calls to action was to create a statutory holiday to honour survivors, their families, and communities and ensure public commemoration of the history and legacy of residential schools.
Both Westad and Charlie were involved in legislative efforts and a federal bill to make the statutory holiday a reality. An initial private members bill failed in 2019. Advocates kept up efforts to reintroduce it.
But this past summer, the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced that it had discovered the unmarked graves of what were believed to be 215 children buried at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. The number was later revised down to about 200.
Since then, hundreds of unmarked graves have been identified near the former sites of other residential schools in B.C., Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
While this news did not strike many survivors and their families as surprising, especially given the oral testimony and evidence gathered during the commission, the schools' painful legacies gained greater mainstream consciousness — and political momentum. The new federal bill to create the statutory holiday was fast-tracked as a result.
This sequence of events rests uneasily with Charlie.
"My heart cries out in sadness that it took a tragedy for them to honour, respect and pay tribute to these 150,000 children. The ones who went to the school and the ones who didn't make it home," he said. "Because they didn't need to have a tragedy to make them aware that this is important."
Webstad framed it slightly differently.
"I believe that the Tk'emlúps 215 children were the ones that made the federal government act and push it through," she said.
"The ancestors are behind this. The children are behind it."
Still, she says, as she reflects on this day of truth and reconciliation, the reconciliation part is still a long way off.
"The truth comes first, and the truth is not finished being told. That needs to happen first."
Support is available for anyone affected by the lingering effects of residential schools and those who are triggered by the latest reports. The Indian Residential School Survivors Society can be contacted toll-free at 1-800-721-0066.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. Access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.
Within B.C., the KUU-US Crisis Line Society provides a First Nations and Indigenous-specific crisis line available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It's toll free and can be reached at 1-800-588-8717 or online at kuu-uscrisisline.com.
With files from The Early Edition, On The Island