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Why Canada is marking the 1st National Day for Truth and Reconciliation this year

This Thursday will mark the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation — a new federal statutory holiday honouring the children who died while attending residential schools and the survivors, families and communities still affected by the legacy of the residential school system. We take a look at how it came about and the dark history it commemorates.

Sept. 30 honours the children, survivors, families and communities affected by residential schools

A memorial on Parliament Hill honouring the children who died while attending residential schools. The discovery of potential burial sites at several former residential schools this summer shocked many and sped up the passage of a bill establishing Sept. 30 as National Day for Truth and Reconciliation honouring those who died and have been affected by the legacy of the residential school system. (CBC/Radio-Canada)

WARNING: This story contains some disturbing details

Sept. 30 will mark the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation — an annual commemoration honouring the children who died while attending residential schools and the survivors, families and communities still affected by the legacy of the residential school system. 

The creation of the new federal statutory holiday was approved by Parliament days after the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation confirmed the discovery of roughly 200 potential burial sites, likely of children, on the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.

Weeks later, the Cowessess First Nation announced a preliminary finding of 751 unmarked graves at a cemetery near the former Marieval Indian Residential School east of Regina. Since then, more than 300 other potential burial sites have been identified, and searches are underway at sites across Canada.

While the discoveries have shocked many and led to an outpouring of grief and news coverage globally, Indigenous people and advocates say it had long been known and talked about that some of the children who were removed from their families and forced to attend residential schools never made it back home.

An undated photo of the Marieval residential school east of Regina. In June, 751 unmarked graves were detected at a cemetery near the site of the former school. (Collection générale de la Société historique de Saint-Boniface)

When and why was the day declared?

In 2017, Saskatchewan MP Georgina Jolibois introduced a private member's bill to make National Day for Truth and Reconciliation an official holiday.

Two years earlier, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up to examine the abuses of the residential school system, had called upon the federal government to establish, as a statutory holiday, a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in one of its 94 calls to action.

In its final report, based on hearings held between 2008 and 2014, the TRC said establishing a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation would honour survivors, their families, and communities and " ensure that public commemoration of the history and legacy of residential schools remains a vital component of the reconciliation process."

Saskatchewan MP Georgina Jolibois introduced a private member's bill in 2017 to make Sept. 30 the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. (Submitted by Georgina Jolibois)

On June 5, 2021, Bill C-5, which created a statutory holiday to commemorate the legacy of residential schools in Canada, received royal assent after passing unanimously in the Senate. The decision was fast-tracked following the Kamloops discovery.

The original proposed date was June 21 — National Indigenous Peoples Day. But after consultation with Indigenous groups and individuals from across Canada, the date was set for Sept. 30 instead.

The day has been marked in past years as Orange Shirt Day, originally started in 2013. The day honours residential school survivor Phyllis Webstad, who had her orange shirt taken away on the first day of school.

Prime Minister JustinTrudeau at the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School on Cowessess First Nation. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)

Who will mark the day?

The new statutory holiday applies to federally regulated workplaces, meaning that on Sept. 30, federal government offices, banks and post offices will be closed.

Many provinces and territories will mark the day as a designated holiday and day off for students. However, Alberta, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario have chosen not to recognize Sept. 30 as a stat — a move that has been criticized by Indigenous groups and leaders.

Private companies and organizations can also decide whether or not to recognize National Day for Truth and Reconciliation with a day off.

People gather outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School on June 5, 2021, as they welcome runners from the Syilx Okanagan Nation taking part in an annual run to unify the community while addressing mental health and cultural rejuvenation. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

How can I take part in National Day for Truth and Reconciliation?

Memorials, educational and cultural events will be held in communities across Canada on the day, and the Department of Canadian Heritage is encouraging Canadians to read and reflect on the legacy of residential schools.

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation has also unveiled a flag to honour residential school survivors, with nine design elements selected by over 30 residential school survivors.

The Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc nation is inviting people to mark the day by learning the Secwépemc Honour Song, traditionally sung at Secwépemc gatherings, and to drum and sing along at 2:15 p.m. PT on Sept. 30. 

WATCH | Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc Chief Rosanne Casimir invites Canadians to take part in the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation:

CBC is marking the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation with a full day of programming and content showcasing First Nations, Métis and Inuit perspectives and experiences across CBC TV, CBC News Network, CBC.ca, CBC Kids, CBC Radio One and CBC Music, including a commercial-free prime time broadcast special.

How to follow CBC coverage:

  • All day at CBCNews.ca and on CBC News Network.
  • Prime-time special, 8 p.m. local time (9 p.m. AT, 9:30 p.m. NT) on CBC Television and CBC Gem.
  • 10 a.m. on CBC Radio One: Q's Tom Power speaks with acclaimed documentary filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin.
  • Noon on CBC Radio One: Unreserved host Host Rosanna Deerchild, former Truth and Reconciliation Commission chair Murray Sinclair and musician William Prince share stories of resistance, reclamation and resilience.
  • More information about CBC's coverage is available here
A convoy of trucks in support of Tk'emlups te Secwepemc makes its way to the former Kamloops Indian Residential School on June 5, 2021. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

What are residential schools?

More than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were forced to attend church-run, government-funded schools between the 1870s and 1997.

In 1894, the Indian Act was amended to authorize the government to remove an Indigenous child from their family if it was felt they were not being properly cared for or educated and place them in a school. Subsequent amendments to the act in 1920 further reinforced compulsory attendance at the schools. 

Children were removed from their families and culture and forced to learn English, embrace Christianity and adopt the customs of Canada's white majority.

Children in class at the Catholic residential school in Fort George, Que. in 1939. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up to examine the abuses of the residential school system concluded that the schools were part of a collective, calculated effort to eradicate Indigenous language and culture. (Deschâtelets Archives)

Many of the children at residential schools were physically, sexually or psychologically abused in a system described by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in its landmark 2015 report as cultural genocide, part of a collective, calculated effort to eradicate Indigenous language and culture.

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, which houses the material collected by the TRC, has identified the names of, or information about, more than 4,100 children who died while attending these schools, most due to malnourishment or disease.

But former senator Murray Sinclair, who chaired the TRC, has said he believes the death toll could be much higher because of the schools' poor burial records.

Murray Sinclair, former chair for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, will be part of CBC's National Day for Truth and Reconciliation coverage on Radio One at noon. ( Kim Kaschor/CBC)

Where in Canada were residential schools?

The Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement (IRSSA) has recognized 139 residential schools across Canada, though that number excludes schools that operated without federal support. Some schools were run solely by religious orders or provincial governments.

The 139 schools operated in all Canadian provinces and territories except Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador. There were also residential schools in N.L., but they weren't included in the IRSSA. 

In 1931, at the peak of the residential school system, there were about 80 schools operating in the country. 

The last school to close, in 1997, was Kivalliq Hall in Rankin Inlet, in what is now Nunavut. 

Kivalliq Hall in Rankin Inlet, now Nunavut, was the last residential school to close in 1997. (NWT Archives/Northwest Territories. Department of Public Works and Services fonds/G-1995-001: 5917)

In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivered a formal apology in the House of Commons on behalf of the government of Canada over residential schools and the damage they did to Indigenous people.

WATCH | Harper apologizes for residential schools in 2008:

Prime minister apologizes for residential schools

13 years ago
2:54
In Parliament, Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivers an apology to residential school survivors and all Indigenous Canadians in 2008. Warning: This video contains distressing details. About 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children were forced to attend the government-funded residential schools from the 19th century to 1996, when the last one closed. They lived in substandard conditions and endured sexual, physical, and emotional abuse. The system was "cultural genocide," said the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015. A 24-hour national Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available at 1-866-925-4419 to support former students and others affected by a residential school experience. 2:54

There were also more than 600 so-called Indian day schools that operated across Canada in every province and territory except Newfoundland and Labrador between 1863 and 2000. First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were sent to the schools during the day but remained in their communities. Some who attended the day schools have reported similar abuses as those that occurred at residential schools.

 

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michelle Ghoussoub

Reporter, CBC News

Michelle Ghoussoub is a television, radio and digital reporter with CBC News in Vancouver. Reach her at michelle.ghoussoub@cbc.ca or on Twitter @MichelleGhsoub.

With files from CBC News

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