Orange Shirt Day, National Day of Truth and Reconciliation are steps in right direction

"Canadians need to pause and listen to the perspectives of Indigenous peoples."

Frontier Centre commentary, Stanley reaction show progress needed

Students across Canada will wear orange shirts as a reminder of Canada's history of Indian Residential Schools. (Nichole Huck/CBC)

School kids across Canada will enter classrooms today wearing orange T-shirts to commemorate the generations of children who attended Indian Residential Schools.

Since 2013, schools have been joining a movement inspired by the shiny orange shirt that Phyllis Webstad wore when she entered St. Joseph Mission near Williams Lake, B.C. in 1967. She was stripped of her clothing and never saw the shirt again. 

As an intergenerational survivor of the residential schools, I am heartened to see educators committed to teaching the truth, which was for so long ignored throughout Canada.

TRC taught Canadians

Many Canadians didn't know anything about the schools before the 2009-2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Before then, what little information there was came mainly from the perspective of the white governments, white bureaucrats and white school officials.

It was only when former students across Canada sued the government and churches, which ran the schools, that their voices were finally heard.

Commission chairman Justice Murray Sinclair speaks at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Ottawa on Tuesday, June 2, 2015. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

It has also been heartwarming to see the great numbers of Canadians who feel the same way Indigenous people do about the schools. Many are saddened, angered and disgusted by the wrongs perpetrated, which so clearly have contributed to ongoing problems among Indigenous people today.

Many Canadians are committed to reconciliation and are answering the TRC Calls to Action in their workplaces, schools, churches and personal lives.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's announcement in August that the government will answer Call to Action 80 and create a statutory holiday, a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, is welcome and necessary.

Canada must not forget the findings of the TRC or allow the Calls to Action to be ignored.- Betty Ann Adam

National day would be another good step

Recent news has shown that Canadians need a day each year to reflect upon the relationship between Indigenous peoples, who occupied this land for more than 12,000 years, and the immigrants who have come here in the past 400 years.

A Truth and Reconciliation Day is needed because the discriminatory mindset that created and sustained residential schools for over 100 years unfortunately still exists in Canada.

The widespread support for Gerald Stanley after the killing of Colten Boushie — along with anti-Indigenous, hate-filled social media comments — revealed a depressing level of racism in Saskatchewan.

More recently, an August essay posted on the website of the conservative think tank Frontier Centre for Public Policy, and an accompanying radio ad, argued that the failures of the residential school system are exaggerated, that the TRC helped spread erroneous information and the system shouldn't be blamed for problems that still beset many Indigenous communities.

The essay, written by retired teacher Mark DeWolf of Halifax, builds upon his April 18, 2018 article for Troy Media in which he argues there was no alternative to the residential school system.

Many Canadians knew little about residential schools before the TRC. (Algoma University/Edmund Metatabwin collection)

In both articles, DeWolf expresses the same ethnocentric perspective as John A Macdonald and Duncan Campbell Scott, which assumes a colonizers' school system, no matter how inhumane, was unquestionably the best thing for Indigenous people or at least Canada.

DeWolf gives no consideration to the possibility Indigenous peoples would have found their own ways to adjust to the influx of settlers who moved in and claimed ownership of the unceded land.

The new entity called Canada could have chosen to respect the First Peoples and worked with them to provide education as envisioned by their leaders who signed the Treaties.

DeWolf seems not to have thought of that and runs roughshod over the deeply researched findings of the TRC. He keeps his focus on "white-means-right" education arguments.

It is time to stop blocking Indigenous peoples from using their own ways to solve the problems.- Betty Ann Adam

DeWolf claims the harms of residential schools are a myth but then acknowledges, "Cultural repression, abuse of all kinds, forcible incarceration, and even preventable deaths did happen."

He sneers at the media for reporting secret burials of children at the schools, apparently because the information sparked outrage.

DeWolf dismisses news reporting of priests and nuns beating and molesting children at the schools as "pandering" to "a generational tendency toward melodrama."

While he correctly states that "200 years of land appropriation, cultural invasion, deprivation, marginalization, and demoralization," requires new policies and practices, he is mistaken in thinking that the impact of residential schools can or should be minimized.

'The status quo approach is still failing'

Canadians need to pause and listen to the perspectives of Indigenous peoples.

The ongoing social ills in the Indigenous community prove the status quo approach is still failing. It is time to stop blocking Indigenous peoples from using their own ways to solve the problems and support those approaches with adequate funding to let them succeed. 

Canada must not forget the findings of the TRC or allow the Calls to Action to be ignored.

A nationally observed, annual day of Truth and Reconciliation will help to keep Canada moving toward a better day for Indigenous people and all of its settler citizens.

The children wearing orange shirts understand that past wrongs must end. Soon they will be the leaders of a Canada that can do better.

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Betty Ann Adam is a freelance columnist. She was a reporter with the Saskatoon StarPhoenix for 29 years. She is Dene and a member of the Sixties Scoop Indigenous Society.