In the spring, when hundreds of unmarked graves were discovered on former Indian Residential School sites, a national conversation about the terrible legacy — and ongoing trauma — of Canada’s residential school system was ignited.
In June, the House of Commons unanimously passed legislation making Sept. 30 the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, which is now an official federal statutory holiday. It’s a long overdue response to call to action No. 80 in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s final report, which called for the federal government to establish a statutory holiday to honour residential school survivors, their families and communities.
The provinces are not unified in how they are recognizing the federal holiday, however. Manitoba is marking it by closing schools on Sept. 30, as well as all non-essential provincial government services and offices. Flags on all provincial government buildings will be lowered to half-mast. Other provinces, such as Ontario, are not recognizing it provincially.
Previously, Sept. 30 had been unofficially observed across the country as Orange Shirt Day, so named for the orange shirt six-year-old Phyllis Webstad wore — and had taken away — on her first day at a residential school in Williams Lake, B.C., in 1976. The date is significant; late September is when government agents would remove Indigenous children from their families. People wear orange shirts to honour residential school survivors and the children who never came home.
According to a Government of Canada news release, the choice of Sept. 30 as the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation "builds on the grassroots momentum of Orange Shirt Day."
Or it slows it, depending on one’s perspective. On its face, the fact schools and post-secondary institutions in Manitoba will be closed on Sept. 30 is a bit puzzling, considering education is such a powerful tool in reconciliation. Manitoba’s schools have embraced the concept of Orange Shirt Day as an entry point into difficult and absolutely necessary conversations with young people about residential schools.
The date is significant; late September is when government agents would remove Indigenous children from their families.
For too many decades, Canadians were taught a lopsided history that omitted residential schools as a tool of assimilation. Many Canadians had no idea the residential school system even existed. From that perspective, it makes sense that a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation ought to be spent learning. (As well, while orange shirts will indeed still be worn on Sept. 30, there’s an added visibility when classrooms full of children create an orange wave together.)
Then again, a classroom is not the only place one can learn. A holiday creates space for people to attend and participate in events, memorials, marches and ceremonies, to engage, listen, learn, remember and mourn in a fulsome way — so long as everyone gets to participate, not just those employed by the federal government.
Those who don’t have work or school on Sept. 30 should be encouraged to observe the day by learning, by attending events, by reading up on the TRC’s 94 calls to action (and identifying how few of them Canada has accomplished), by supporting Indigenous artists and creators, by listening, honouring, remembering. This work cannot be limited to one day; it must be ongoing.
The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation must be a national day of sombre reflection, education and action.
What it should not become is just another day off.