Ottawa to declare federal holiday to mark legacy of residential school system

The Liberal government will declare a federal statutory holiday to mark the tragic legacy of the residential school system, fulfilling a recommendation made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

Liberal government consulting with Indigenous peoples on a date

A group of female students and a nun pose in a classroom at Cross Lake Indian Residential School in Cross Lake, Man., in a February 1940 archive photo. The discovery of potentially hundreds of unmarked graves near former residential schools has prompted calls for the release of records. (Library and Archives Canada)

The Liberal government will declare a federal statutory holiday to mark the tragic legacy of the residential school system, fulfilling a recommendation made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

The TRC's Call to Action 80 asked for the establishment of a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation to honour the survivors of residential schools.

"My government committed, as part of reconciliation and as an example of reconciliation, that we would accept all of those calls to action," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters Thursday during a media availability in St. Eustache, Quebec.

"The date of that holiday, and how it's named and framed and all that, will be done in the spirit of reconciliation in full collaboration and consultation with Indigenous peoples," Trudeau said, adding that this process is underway now and the government will announce its plans once it's finished.

Trudeau on how a new holiday will be chosen

5 years ago
Duration 2:00
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke to reporters in St Eustache Quebec on Thursday

    Two days are currently under consideration: June 21, which is National Indigenous Peoples Day, and September 30, which is named "Orange Shirt Day." It is named for the bright orange shirt given to six-year-old Phyllis Webstad by her grandmother in 1973; it was taken from her by administrators when she attended the St. Joseph Mission School in Williams Lake, B.C. The date was chosen because it's around the time Indigenous children were taken from their homes and sent to residential schools.

    "The overall picture is that it is important to have that day set aside so Canadians continually get it and will never ever forget the impact of genocide in the residential schools on Indigenous peoples," Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), said in an interview with the Globe and Mail, which first reported the government is in the advanced stages of creating the holiday.

    Later, in an interview with CBC's Power & Politics, the national chief said the day could be an occasion for nationwide educational activities to help all Canadians "learn from the past."

    AFN National Chief on a new stat holiday

    5 years ago
    Duration 4:42
    Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde joins Power & Politics to discuss a new statutory holiday to remember and reflect on the tragic legacy of residential schools.

    "This is actually what happened to my dad and my grandpa, and my great grandparents. This is what happened and we need all Canadians to learn from that," he said.

    "It is a dark chapter. I don't call it cultural genocide of our people. I call it genocide, because that's what the residential schools tried to do ... to wipe out First Nations people."

    The TRC, which conducted an exhaustive six-year study of the system, found physical, mental and sexual abuse was rampant in the schools, and some 6,000 children died while in care of malnourishment or disease.

    Prime Minister Stephen Harper, second from left to right, and Inuit Leader Terry Audla, President of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, AFN Chief Perry Bellegarde and Commission chairman Justice Murray Sinclair listen during the closing ceremony of the Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission, at Rideau Hall in 2015. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

    A department official, speaking to CBC News on background, said the government will back a private member's bill introduced by NDP Saskatchewan MP Georgina Jolibois, but would be open to amendments as it makes its way through Parliament.

    The official said the Liberal government is not sold on June 21 — the date Jolibois proposes in her bill, C-361. The official said the government is the midst of consultations with national Indigenous organizations to determine the best date.

    Bellegarde said Wednesday he doesn't have a particular date in mind at this point.

    Some First Nations leaders have raised concerns about combining that date — traditionally regarded as a day to celebrate Indigenous culture — with a day recognizing the painful legacy of the residential school system.

    June 21 also falls near Quebec's Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day and Canada Day. 

    It's not yet clear when the new federal statutory holiday will be implemented, but the official said conversations with Indigenous peoples are well underway.

    St. Michael's Indian Residential School entrance, with two students on the driveway, in Alert Bay, B.C., is shown in a 1970 handout photo. (Library and Archives Canada/Canadian Press)

    Constitutionally, it's up to the provinces and territories to determine which statutory holidays exist in their jurisdictions.

    Nothing in any federal legislation would force them to follow suit and implement a day to mark the horrors of the residential school system.

    So a new federal holiday would apply only to workers in federally regulated industries — like the federal public service, banks, interprovincial and international transportation companies, TV/radio, telecommunications, fisheries and Crown corporations, among others — unless the provinces took action on their own.

    There is a patchwork of holidays across the country. For example, Remembrance Day is a "legal" holiday federally but some provinces (notably Ontario and Quebec) have not declared it a statutory holiday — meaning non-federal public servant employees in those provinces generally report to work on Nov. 11 as if it were any other day.

    Other provinces, like Nova Scotia, have specific regulations that govern which businesses can be open on the day that commemorates the sacrifices of Canadian Armed Forces personnel.

    Jolibois has said she hopes a federal declaration will inspire other provinces and territories to follow suit. June 21 is already a statutory holiday in the Northwest Territories and in the Yukon.

    There are now 9 federal statutory holidays for employees in federally regulated workplaces: New Year's Day, Good Friday, Victoria Day, Canada Day, Labour Day, Thanksgiving Day, Remembrance Day, Christmas Day and Boxing Day.