In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized on behalf of the Canadian government for the Indian residential school system, and created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada to find out what happened at the Indian residential schools. The commission released its final report in 2015, which found that the Indian residential school system was an act of “cultural genocide” against the First Nations of Canada.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that the residential school system disrupted the ability of parents to pass on their indigenous languages to their children, leading to 70% of Canada’s Aboriginal languages being classified as endangered. It found that the deliberately poor education offered at the residential school system created a poorly educated indigenous population in Canada, which impacted the incomes those students could earn as adults, and impacted the educational achievement of their children and grandchildren, who were frequently raised in low-income homes. It also found that the sexual and physical abuse received at the schools created life-long trauma in residential school survivors, trauma and abuse which was often passed down to their children and grandchildren, which continues to create victims of the residential school system today.
The inspiration for Orange Shirt Day came from residential school survivor Phyllis Jack Webstad, who shared her story at a St Joseph Mission (SJM) Residential School Commemoration Project and Reunion event held in Williams Lake, British Columbia, in the spring of 2013. Phyllis recounted her first day of residential schooling at six years old, when she was stripped of her clothes, including the new orange shirt her grandmother bought her, which was never returned. The orange shirt now symbolizes how the residential school system took away the indigenous identity of its students.
Today, Orange Shirt Day exists as a legacy of the SJM Project, and September 30, the annual date of the event, signifies the time of year when Indigenous children were historically taken from their homes to residential schools. The official tagline of the day, “Every Child Matters”, reminds Canadians that all peoples’ cultural experiences are important.
The Canadian government recently passed legislation to make September 30th a federal statutory holiday called the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. This decision relates to Federal employees only. The day provides an opportunity for people to recognize and commemorate the legacy of residential schools. This may present itself as a day of quiet reflection or participation in a community event.
The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation has 94 Calls to Action. There are Calls to Action addressed to the Federal, Provincial and others for Municipal governments. There are also several Calls to Action for the Canadian public. In particular, Call to Action #57 states: We call upon federal, provincial, territorial, and municipal governments to provide education to public servants on the history of Aboriginal peoples, including the history and legacy of residential schools, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Treaties and Aboriginal rights, Indigenous law, and Aboriginal–Crown relations. This will require skills- based training in intercultural competency, conflict resolution, human rights, and anti-racism.
The Council of Westport passed a by-law to combat racism, discrimination and harassment in 2020. Further, at its August 3, 2021 meeting, the Council of the Village of Westport passed the following resolution :
(a) proclaim the week of September 30, beginning on the previous Sunday, as Truth and Reconciliation Week,
(b) fly the “Every Child Matters” flag at Town Hall during that week, and
(c) provide September 30 as a day of rest and reflection for Village Staff.
I encourage you to spend some time reviewing the Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action. We all have roles to play towards reconciliation.