Sept. 30 marks the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
Introduced to Canada last year, the date has been established as a federal holiday (Bill C-5).
The legislation addresses one of the 94 calls to action (#80) published in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada report. (“We call upon the federal government, in collaboration with Aboriginal peoples, to establish, as a statutory holiday, a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation to 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.”)
Also known as Orange Shirt Day, the importance of a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation was amplified last spring, when a ground-penetrating radar survey at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School discovered the remains of up to 215 children buried at the site. Subsequent surveys done on the grounds of more than a dozen other Canadian residential schools have discovered another 1,584 suspected unmarked graves, including 751 on the school grounds of the Marieval Indian Residential School (Marieval, Sask.) on June 24 of 2021.
North Island College’s Elder In Residence, Dr. Evelyn Voyageur, said while the statutory holiday was one of the calls to action, she would like to see the day recognized as more than that.
“It is a day to honour and recognize the ones who survived, and remember and honour the ones who were murdered in the schools,” she said. “But I don’t think it should be called a holiday. Holidays (imply) everybody having good times, and all that. This is a time where we should be remembering, and having ceremonies, to remember all those who didn’t make it, and all the ones who were traumatized for life from their experiences there.”
Voyageur said the establishment of the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is an important way to keep the information regarding the cultural genocide conducted on Canada’s Indigenous people relevant and fresh.
“There are so many people who don’t believe it actually happened. Even with the graves being found, there are people telling us ‘forget about it. It happened long ago.’ But I truly believe it should be kept (in the forefront) because as long as people talk like that, our world will never get better.
“We are not just making it up. It really happened.”
Voyageur speaks from experience. She was taken from her family at nine years old, and spent six years at St. Michael’s Residential School in Alert Bay.
Voyageur said although residential schools no longer exist, the lasting trauma is real, and perpetual.
“Other people should understand that many problems that are still existing in the Native world are due to the trauma they experienced - all the things they went through. They are walking with such intense pain within them because of this. Is there any other nationality that has had to give up their ways of being, like we were forced to?”
Voyageur said she has seen some improvement and empathy from others since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada report was published in June of 2015, but there is still a long way to go.
“I have seen some, but it is very slow. I am very grateful to those people who have opened their minds and hearts to understand us.”
She said the best way for non-Indigenous people to support the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is to listen and learn, and to spread the word.
“If you know the stories, you can tell others who don’t know the stories, and help them to understand and know what happened, I think people would be really good allies if they did that, and not just say ‘oh, we shouldn’t talk about that.’ The problem with the Western World is they always look at the symptoms, not the cause. If we don’t deal with the cause, it will never get better.”