Winnipeg Indigenous activist has both concerns, high hopes for 1st national reconciliation day

A Winnipeg community activist and son of a residential school survivor has mixed feelings about the new federal statutory holiday marking the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation — but hopes it will be much more than just another day off.

'The whole point of all of this is to create a more hopeful tomorrow,' says Michael Redhead Champagne

Michael Redhead Champagne hopes the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation honours residential school survivors and their families. He hopes Indigenous people 'relax and do some self-care' and non-Indigenous people focus on learning about the intergenerational effects of the schools that still haunt so many people. (Karen Pauls/CBC News)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

A Winnipeg community activist and son of a residential school survivor has mixed feelings about the new federal statutory holiday marking the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation — but hopes it will be much more than just another day off.

Michael Redhead Champagne worries many Canadians will take the opportunity on Thursday to close up their cottages, go golfing or take an extra-long weekend.

He is especially concerned that many schools across the country will be closed — including those in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, the Northwest Territories, Yukon, Nova Scotia, P.E.I., and Newfoundland and Labrador. 

"My concern is that without students being all together in a learning environment … on Orange Shirt Day, we're missing an opportunity to undo some of the damage that happened in a school," he said recently at the Kapabamayak Achaak (or "Wandering Spirit") Healing Forest in St. John's Park, one of the oldest parks in Winnipeg.

Sept. 30 was formerly observed unofficially as Orange Shirt Day, meant to honour the Indigenous survivors and victims of the residential school system and reflect on the atrocities Canada committed against Indigenous people.

Earlier this year, the federal government created a new federal statutory holiday on Sept. 30, the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, officially approving it 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.

The Kapabamayak Achaak Healing Forest in Winnipeg has four large grandmother stones representing the four directions. They include artwork by Métis-Cree artist Natalie Rostad-Desjarlais. The healing forest is a response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's calls to action for municipalities, focusing on education on reconciliation and the history of colonialism. (Karen Pauls/CBC News)

While many will have the day off, Redhead Champagne thinks students should have an opportunity to hear from survivors in schools and take action on reconciliation on Sept. 30.

"I feel like where we made the mistake, we also have to go and fix it in that same environment. And so to me, a lot of the answers and solutions to education in terms of reconciliation … have to do with what happens in the four walls of those schools."

Lingering effects

More than 150,000 Indigenous children were taken from their communities and forced to attend residential schools over their more than 100-year history, starting in the late 19th century.

The Winnipeg-based National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation has so far documented 4,118 children who died at residential schools, but the actual number is believed to be far higher.

Thousands of other children forced to attend the schools were left with physical and emotional trauma that continues to affect First Nations families and communities.

The schools were funded by the Canadian government's Department of Indian Affairs and run by Christian churches, with the majority run by the Roman Catholic Church.

The new federal holiday is a direct response to one of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's calls to action.

Redhead Champagne hopes it takes on some of the cultural significance and mood of Remembrance Day, but he sees it playing a different role for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

WATCH | Michael Redhead Champagne gives Cameron MacIntosh a tour of the Healing Forest:

A tour of a Winnipeg healing forest

1 year ago
Duration 3:25
Indigenous activist Michael Champagne visits Winnipeg's Kapabamayak Achaak Healing Forest to talk about the impact of residential schools and his hopes and fears around the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

Anyone affected by residential schools should take the day to "put their feet up and relax and do some self-care," while non-Indigenous Canadians should spend the day educating themselves about the intergenerational effects that still haunt so many people, he said.

Those impacts are not all in the past — Redhead Champagne sees them every day as a helper in Winnipeg's inner city.

Many residential school survivors are senior citizens struggling with housing, access to health care, addictions, over-representation in the justice system, and connecting with their family, language and culture.

Redhead Champagne has experienced it in his own life — his birth mother was forced to attend residential school and all of her children ended up in the child welfare system.

"All of us kids experienced that family separation, even though we didn't go to those schools," he said.

"As we've all grown, we've had to try to undo that damage and rebuild bonds within our families with each other. And it's been tough."

This year is the first Orange Shirt Day since the death of his birth mother, Redhead Champagne added, and he's mourning the relationship they did not have, which will now never be possible.

The Kapabamayak Achaak Healing Forest is on former City of Winnipeg property, right beside St. John's Anglican Cathedral. Between 1820-1969, the Anglican Church ran three dozen residential schools and hostels. The healing forest's planning group has been using the cathedral's charitable number for donations. (Trevor Brine/CBC News)

Redhead Champagne does hope the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation will become a bridge and meeting ground between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, an opportunity to share traditional values in a way that will be healing.

With many schools across Canada closed, he encourages non-Indigenous people to attend cultural and educational events. He also suggests reading the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's 94 calls to action and the 231 calls for justice from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

Redhead Champagne plans to attend a healing walk from the Canadian Museum for Human Rights to the Healing Forest in Winnipeg's St. John's Park, where an all-day "Every Child Matters" powwow will take place.

"I would hope that the teachings within Indigenous communities that talk about children being sacred could be shared with non-Indigenous people. I wish that the understanding that what we do to the land we [also] do to ourselves could be shared with non-Indigenous people," he said.

"The whole point of all of this is to create a more hopeful tomorrow for Indigenous kids, but for everybody."

Support is available for anyone affected by the lingering effects of residential school and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

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

With files from Cameron MacIntosh