On Friday, Canada will mark the second official National Day for Truth and Reconciliation — a federal statutory holiday that is meant to give public servants an opportunity to recognize the legacy of residential schools.
“We have to remember that this is called Orange Shirt Day,” said Crystal Gail Fraser, an assistant professor of History and Native Studies at the University of Alberta.
“This day is an Indigenous-led, grassroots day for remembrance, for reconciliation, for ceremony, for healing. And it originated out of the story of Indian Residential School survivor Phyllis Webstad, and how she was institutionalized in the early 1970s and had her orange shirt — a gift from her mother — taken away from her.”
Sept. 30 was designated a paid holiday for federal employees in June 2021 and addresses one of the 94 calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
“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,” the TRC report stated.
The story of Phyllis Webstad, the Orange Shirt Day creator
Fraser said she’s glad the federal government implemented the TRC’s call to action by creating the national holiday, it’s just a starting point.
She referenced the document Calls to Action: Accountability, a 2021 status update on reconciliation by Eva Jewell and Ian Mosby.
“In this particular report, they say that approximately 14 per cent of the 94 calls to action have been implemented,” Fraser said.
“But what they really encourage us to do is to think about truth and reconciliation in a bigger way.
“While the calls to action are important, while they need to be implemented, we also can’t look at truth and reconciliation as a checklist because as we know, the best relationships that we have in our life are ones that take work, are ones that need ongoing care, ones that are with friends and relatives and neighbours.”
While the government of Alberta “encourages all Albertans to reflect on the legacy of residential schools” on Sept. 30, it’s leaving the implementation of a statutory holiday up to individual employers for provincially-regulated industries.
“We must not limit our acknowledgement to the legacy of residential schools to just one day,” Adrienne South, spokesperson for Alberta’s ministry of Indigenous Relations, said in August 2021. “Alberta’s government will work with First Nations and Métis communities in establishing a permanent memorial on the Alberta legislature grounds for the victims of the residential school system.”
A call for expressions of interest went out in June and a panel of Indigenous elders and community members has made the final selection, the ministry said Wednesday.
The province will be announcing the selected artist on Friday in the Reconciliation Garden on the legislature grounds at 11 a.m.
Indigenous educators say children must learn truth before reconciliation
Fraser said the TRC’s calls to action are largely geared towards governments, churches, big organizations and corporations.
However, there are many ways settler Canadians can participate in and recognize the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
In fact, in 2017, for Canada’s 150 birthday, Fraser and her colleague Sara Komarnisky wrote 150 Acts of Reconciliation, a list of small, everyday acts — and some thought-provoking concepts — that average Canadians can undertake. Suggestions include learning the land acknowledgement in your region, learning the difference between Indigenous, Aboriginal, First Nation, Métis and Inuit, attending an Indigenous cultural event like a round dance, or supporting local Indigenous authors, restaurants and businesses.
“When we’re thinking about Orange Shirt Day in particular, one of the acts is No. 8: Find out if there was a residential school where you live,” Fraser shared.
“There is also act No. 27, which is purchase some books for your children that explain the histories and legacies of residential schools.
“Act No. 32: Listen more, talk less. So, listening and growing as a person.
“When this list was published in 2017, we had someone on Twitter take up act No. 40, which is write your local councillor, MLA or MP about flying an Indigenous flag at government buildings. They had an Indigenous flag flying at city hall where they lived within a week,” Fraser said.
“The last one, the 150th, is really to begin your own list… come up with No. 151. Again, this is not meant as a checklist, but as a starting point.”
Fraser also suggested making a donation to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, learning more about Indigenous communities where you live, and taking the University of Alberta’s Indigenous Canada massive open online course (MOOC) for free.
“After I had my PhD and I was working at U of A, I took this course and I just really learned a lot in it. I’m now one of their instructors, but really, we see a lot of different people with various backgrounds and cultures register in this MOOC and it’s just a beautiful thing that you can do for free.”
Search underway for unmarked burial sites at former Alberta residential school
Fraser is also encouraging some self-reflection and wider perspective on Sept. 30.
“Folks who are celebrating Sept. 30, ask yourself to be reflective on how we came to have that holiday in particular, a national day to commemorate and celebrate reconciliation in Canada.
“I think this was suggested 30 years ago in the 1990s and it took until a conversation around unmarked graves in 2021, it took that long to implement this national holiday.
“On the other hand, we have the death of the Queen, and it was in record time that we had a holiday for that. So just a little bit of critical thinking about how these processes happen, about what kind of Canadian values are important to us in order to get things done.”
Overall, she hopes it’s a day of learning and listening.
“One of the things that we really need to remember is that there are thousands of Indigenous peoples and communities in this settler state of Canada who continue to be denied basic human rights such as adequate housing, such as clean drinking water.
“We still have tragedies that happen as a result of structural racism.”
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