The third annual National Day for Truth and Reconciliation was marked by solemn gatherings across Eeyou Istchee and Canada, honouring the lost children, survivors and their families impacted by the residential school system.
September 30 was first commemorated as Orange Shirt Day 10 years ago, signifying the time of year when Indigenous children were historically taken from their homes to residential schools.
“The scars that have been left are deep and painful but awareness of a not-so-distant truth and compassion from our neighbours are necessary steps on the path to reconciliation and healing,” stated a message from the Grand Council of the Crees. “Our unity and resilience are a message of strength against a cruel system meant to take away our language, culture and pride.”
Declaring the day “a country-wide beacon calling for healing,” Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty emphasized coming together with friends and family to support each other’s healing journeys. The Cree Nation Government expressed solidarity with survivors and their families, offering support as efforts proceed at former residential school sites on Fort George Island to uncover difficult answers.
On September 30, Chisasibi Chief Daisy House honoured the wisdom, bravery and determination of her community members. New generations now proudly celebrate teachings passed down from Elders and speak their mother tongue that was forbidden in residential schools.
“In Chisasibi, our history is heavy, yet remarkable,” House stated. “Being a strong, bold and fierce community, we do not allow generations of colonialism’s impacts to define us. We’ve raised and continue to raise our children on the very lands where our Ancestors endured hardships and heartache.”
House asserted that the “heart-wrenching” initiative to pursue ground-penetrating radar on Fort George Island will eventually provide much-needed healing by finally reclaiming the people’s true history. The Cree Health Board offered its support for such healing processes as it moves towards addressing the Cree Nation’s accumulated layers of trauma.
“Our goal is to create a trauma informed society,” said chairperson Bertie Wapachee. “Even if it takes a lifetime, our organization will be there with you. September 30 is an opportunity to thank all survivors for your resilience, strength and continuing on with life.”
Special events across the Cree Nation commemorated the occasion, with a sea of orange shirts worn by students and teachers from Mistissini’s schools flowing to a large gathering by the lake. Several schools organized memorial walks and other projects, such as an “Every Child Matters” poster contest at Waskaganish’s Wiinibekuu School.
Orange shirts emblazoned with the phrase “Every Child Matters” symbolize a reclamation of Indigenous identity that residential schools sought to remove, inspired by survivor Phyllis Webstad’s story of having her orange shirt stripped on her first day of residential school as a six-year-old. The colour is also associated with power, regeneration and truth-telling.
The day of remembrance and reflection in Indigenous communities was also an opportunity for all Canadians to learn more about the history of this genocidal system and to commit to ongoing reconciliation efforts. Numerous marches and ceremonies occurred in cities and towns across Canada.
Native Women’s Shelter director Nakuset co-hosted with Ann Deer a Montreal gathering that featured empowering speeches from Ellen Gabriel and Kahnawake Grand Chief Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer before hundreds of people adorned in orange walked through the downtown streets.
A healing walk in Winnipeg culminated in a powwow while Calgary’s mayor announced it will establish a permanent residential school memorial. On Vancouver Island, Tseshaht First Nation elected chief councillor Wahmeesh (Ken Watts) led a walk and cultural activities to celebrate 50 years since a residential school in its community closed, which was partly initiated by his late father George Watts.
“We need to remember that survivors have been carrying this on their shoulders for decades,” said Watts. “And so, it’s up to us as a next generation to carry it for them because they’ve had to carry this weight.”
At a healing walk in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Wolastoqi Elder Imelda Perley asserted that Indigenous culture should be celebrated every day. “I want my children to know that every day they can be safe in their own culture and not have to leave it behind at home.”
On Parliament Hill, the country’s first Indigenous Governor General, Mary Simon, told attendees that rhetoric about reconciliation needs to be backed by concrete action. Simon believes the country’s education system should place greater emphasis on Indigenous history and language.
“We need a more unified system of how we give the full story of Canada, especially in relation to Indigenous and first peoples of this country,” Simon said.
In this line of work “almost 50 years,” Simon has unique insights into complexities of politics and the slow pace of progress. She acknowledged the challenges of closing gaps in infrastructure, health care and education between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.
“It takes a long time, these things,” said Simon. “And I fully sympathize with those in small communities, continuing to suffer the inequities. Even though we’re making progress on bigger issues, it’s not necessarily having an impact at the community level.”
Affirming it was everyone’s responsibility to confront the lasting impacts of residential schools, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the sad rise of denialism made discovering the truth even more important. Special Interlocutor for Missing Children and Unmarked Graves Kimberly Murray suggested governments can help stop denialism by updating curricula and better funding communities.
“There’s violent attacks through email, showing up on sites with shovels, flying drones over the sites,” said Murray. “Deniers say nobody is buried at these institutions and we know that’s simply not true. Blueprints show that cemeteries were built at these institutions.”
Murray said reconciliation is taking place at the grassroots level, “in small communities with their local governments, with their neighbours.” From Gull-Masty’s perspective, supporting one another is a key to overcoming colonialism’s atrocities.
“Please remember we are always stronger united as a Nation,” Gull-Masty asserted. “This is not an individual or family issue – it impacts our communities and our ties to community and tradition are strong. We reiterate our commitment to support our community members on their healing journey so we can continue to come out of this a strong Nation.”
by Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter