The National day for truth and reconciliation or popularly known as the Orange shirt day is a statutory holiday in Canada to honour survivors of the Canadian Indian residential schools and also the victims and their families. Like Canadians show respect and interest in the national sport of Canada, they contribute to the national day for truth and reconciliation as well.
September 30 is considered the national day for truth and reconciliation. It was only in 2021 that the Canadian government officially recognized the plea that was put forward by the aboriginal peoples and their communities.
What were Residential Schools?
Residential school was a concept that was initially inaugurated by the federal government of Canada, in particular by the Canadian government’s department of Indian Affairs, and is funded by the same authorities. These were under the administration of Christien Churches.
This system of schools was intended to prevent indigenous children from practising their own customs, tradition, and religion in order to assimilate them into the culture of Canada which was ironically considered elite.
The history goes back to the 17th-century with the arrival of French missionaries in New France. However, the efforts were oppressed by the indigenous peoples who didn’t agree to get separated from their children for a much longer duration. They were greatly abandoned by the 1690s.
However, consistent efforts were again introduced during the 1820s when the residential schools were opened in many places including the Red River Colony, which is the present-day Manitoba, and also in Ontario in order to promote Christianity.
Living Conditions within The Schools
There have been uncountable cases reported by the students who used to attend residential schools of abuse both mental and physical on the students by the school authorities, especially the teachers who often attached the student’s self-esteem.
Students attending the residential schools were often malnourished and were victims of brutal discipline policies which were not ethical in any other school systems including the other Canadian school systems. These schools caused intergenerational harm impacts which can still be seen amongst the people from first nations.
As cruel as it sounds was corporal punishment offered as the best answer to any student for an act of indiscipline according to the rules of the residential schools. The justification for the inhuman act was explained as it was the only finest way to punish or deter runaways. This made it almost impossible for any student to leave the premises without the permission of the authorities.
The increasing concerns were even elevated by the death rates that reached 69 per cent in one of the residential schools. Overcrowding, poor sanitation facilities, lack of medical care, and lack of adequate heating led to the rising number of cases of various diseases, especially, influenza and tuberculosis.
The situation was made worse by the federal policies introduced that allowed enrollment of sick children for the sake of boosting the figures.
The actual numbers are still a debatable issue since there are no official records due to the inconsistency and carelessness of the school officials who did not care enough to take down the exact number of mortalities and the personal data of the person. Additionally, the medical records were destroyed in compliance with retention and disposition policies for government records.
Controversies About Residential Schools
The era of enlightenment came when numerous newspapers and publications wrote about the ill-treatment of students in residential schools. What left everyone in awe was the number of unmarked graves that were found in various residential schools remains a mystery and the fear that actual numbers will never be known because of reliable record-keeping by the school’s officials.
The Truth and reconciliation commission stated that the policy of Indian affairs was to abstain from answering any of the demands for the dead bodies of the students by their families due to lack of funds and instead, cremated them within the burial sites of the school. This made it even more difficult to identify the graves and students who lost their lives since they were buried in unnamed graves.
As the figures state, in May 2021, findings that were supposed to be related to 215 dead children were found buried on the site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School in Kamloops, British Columbia. In June 2021, approximately 751 anonymous graves were noticed on the site of Marieval Indian Residential School in Marieval, Saskatchewan, on the lands of Cowessess First Nations. In the same month, another 182 unmarked graves were found near St. Eugene’s Mission School close to Cranbrook, British Columbia.
Closure of Residential Schools
The revision of the Indian Act in the 1940s and 1950s led to the closure of many residential schools. Debates and protests led to the closure of schools one by one from Alberta to Saskatchewan.
Interestingly, a lot of residential schools are being run now by the indigenous peoples after their closure, White Calf Collegiate in Lebret, Saskatchewan, being one of them. Reports state that it was not until 1996 that the last school was closed.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission
The truth and reconciliation commission was formed in 2008 in coordination with the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA). It had an intention to expose the dirty history that came along with the residential schools and awaken the Canadians about the injustice that indigenous people have been facing for decades.
It faced a lot of issues, majorly because the leaders of the commission used to quit essentially because the government was not helpful at all.
Even after facing a lot of difficulties, due to its persistent efforts, the commission created National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR ). After organizing a lot of successful national events all around the country, the truth and reconciliation commission was able to collect as many as 7000 statements and more than 5 million records from indigenous families by 2014. The National Center has become a hub for all the evidence and statements of the survivors.
TRC stated in its final report statements of about 150000 Canadian residential schools survivors and of the families of the lost children. TRC was the first to give it a label of cultural genocide and further elaborated cultural genocide as ‘destruction of those structures and practices that allow the group to continue as a group.’
National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is a New Legitimate Holiday
The proposal for the national day for truth and reconciliation was put forward by the TRC in 2015. They wanted the federal government to examine a statutory holiday to honour survivors and examine abuses to the residential school survivors by the residential school system.
After years-long debates on the issue, finally, on June 21, 2015, Bill C-5 created a national holiday to commemorate the legacy of residential schools in Canada and named it the national day for truth and reconciliation. It passed with a Royal assent without any disagreements finally.
Initially, the proposed date was 21st June, which is originally celebrated as the National Indigenous peoples’ day but further discussions had the date modified to September 30 as the national day for truth and reconciliation.
The national day for truth and reconciliation overlaps with Orange shirt day. The reason was that a six-year-old, who was extremely excited about her first day to school, which was definitely a residential school, went to market with her grandmother and bought a shiny orange shirt which was snatched on the first day and it left an everlasting impact on the mind of the child.
In an interview, she elaborated on the incident that took place with her in July of 1973, my grandmother brought me to town to buy something to wear. I chose a shiny orange shirt. Just like any other six-year-old, I was happy to be going to school, but I didn’t know exactly what was to come. When I got to the residential school, it was a pee-your-pants terror to be there, to realize that I was not going home. My shirt was taken away. Regardless of what I did, they would not return. I never got the chance to wear my shirt again. It was an entire school year that I was there. There was no one hugging us.”
Her story made it impossible for TRC to ignore and hence led to the formation of the orange shirt day website and served as wheels to revolution across the whole country.
What do People do on National Day for Truth and Reconciliation?
The national day for truth and reconciliation or also the annual Orange shirt day is a date for public commemoration by both indigenous peoples and non-indigenous people to honour survivors and to mark the tragic legacy of residential schools.
On September 30, all Canadians are encouraged to wear orange shirts in order to spread awareness about the painful residential school experience of the survivors and also of those who did not.
Since 2021 which marked the first national day for truth and reconciliation and also the Orange shirt day, every year, various communities formed by indigenous voices and non-indigenous peoples organize events to raise awareness about the sufferings of the victims.
On September 29 and 30, 2021, the buildings across Canada were illuminated in orange from 7 pm till sunrise to honour survivors and their families on the very first National day for truth and reconciliation.
The federal statutory holiday was a direct response to call to action 80 amongst the 94 calls to action released by the truth and reconciliation commission. The reconciliation process is incomplete without the truth and hence was named as the national day for truth and reconciliation in response to a request for a federal statutory day of commemoration.
Celebration of National day for truth and reconciliation definitely is not compensation to the sufferings of the first nations but can somehow at least make the government and all those involved in the residential school system apologize for the carelessness and the abuse that minors had to go through.