Canada marks first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation

Tracy McLaughlin is pictured placing an orange flag into the grass outside of Ursuline College Chatham in honour of the 215 Indigenous children found outside of a residential school in B.C. Photo taken Monday, June 14. (Photo by Millar Hill)

Canadians will pause Thursday to mark the country’s first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

The day, selected to coincide with Orange Shirt Day, is meant to remember the First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children lost to Canada’s residential school system, honour school survivors, their families, and communities and to publicly commemorate the history and legacy of the institutions.

In June, the Trudeau government passed legislation to make September 30 a federal statutory holiday. As such, all federally regulated workplaces will be closed on that date. The national holiday was created in response to the 80th call to action in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action, which was issued in 2015.

While the federal government had hoped provinces and territories would follow its lead and make the day a provincial holiday, few have.

The Ontario government stated it would recognize the day similar to how it marks Remembrance Day. Provincial officials stated they were working with Indigenous partners to ensure the day is a reflection on the tragic history and legacy of residential schools. But would not be giving workers the day off to reflect and learn about Canada’s dark treatment of Indigenous peoples.

Alberta, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, and Quebec have also chosen not to recognize the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation as a statutory holiday.

More than 150,000 Indigenous children were taken away from their families and placed into the church-run residential school system. The purpose of the schools was to assimilate the children into Euro-Canadian society, stripping them of their culture. They were forced to learn English and embrace Christianity. Children at the schools heard speaking their native language or who acted out in any way were severely punished. Many suffered physical, sexual, emotional, and psychological abuse at the hands of school staff. The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation has so far identified more than 4,100 children who died at the schools, most due to malnourishment or disease. However, the number of dead are believed to be much higher. Earlier this year, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced it had found more than 200 unmarked grave sites on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in Kamloops, B.C. That led to more searches and disturbing discoveries using ground penetrating radar on the grounds of other former residential schools across the country. Those searches are ongoing.

The government-funded 139 residential schools operated between the 1880s and 1996. There were two such schools in southwestern Ontario – the Mount Elgin school southwest of London and the Mohawk Institute near Brantford.

Since 2013, September 30 has been called Orange Shirt Day in honour of residential school survivor Phyllis Webstad. She had been given a new orange shirt by her grandmother which was immediately taken away from her on her first day at the residential school. People across the country wear orange each September 30 to honour residential school survivors like Webstad.

To learn more about First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples click here.