“We still have a lot of healing to do with our fellow Canadians” – National Day for Truth and Reconciliation observed September 30

Judy Sackaney and her grandson Creedence, 10, stand in front of an honour staff with tobacco ties at the Centennial Flame in Ottawa on June 5, 2021, after participating in a Pipe Ceremony to honour the 215 children whose remains were found at the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School at Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation in the city of Kamloops in western Canada. The Canadian government fast-tracked legislation to create the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation shortly after the Kamloops site was discovered. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

On September 30, Canada marks the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation for the first time. Something Inuit leaders say is an important step to educating the country on the experiences of Indigenous Canadians.

“This day that is given to Aboriginal people of this country is very much appreciated but it does not solve all our problems and the upheaval that Inuit had to go through because somebody else decided to come to our part of the world and take over our lives,” Pita Aatami, the president of Makivik Corporation, the Inuit land claims organization in Quebec, said in a phone interview.

“We still have a lot of healing to do with our fellow Canadians.”

The creation of the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation was one of the recommendations in the Truth and Reconciliation Report.

Rebecca Kudloo, the president of Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada, says the holiday is an important step in honouring residential school survivors as well as an opportunity to advance the national reconciliation project. 

“This journey of healing requires all Canadians to work together and recognize the history of injustice against Inuit, but also acknowledge the achievements and contributions of our people,” Kudloo said in emailed comment.

“More than just a new statutory day in Canada, the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is an opportunity to honour and recognize the journey of reconciliation.,” says Pauktuutit President Rebecca Kudloo, pictured here in a file photo. (Eye on the Arctic)

Kudloo says reconciliation is not just a political project but something for non-Indigenous Canadians to contribute to.

Participating in Inuit Day and National Indigenous Peoples Day, listening to Inuit elders’ histories and worldview, learning about Inuit culture and being open to learning from it, and creating safe environments for all Indigenous people, are all things non-Indigenous Canadians can do in their everyday lives, she says.

Call to Action 80 from the Truth and Reconciliation Report
80. 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.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action

Learning about about the status of Inuit women today, as well as Pauktuutit’s history, are also important, she says, because of unique pressures colonization has placed on women.

“Inuit women are some of the most vulnerable populations, who not only face the ramifications of colonization but also face other challenges like gender violence and inequality; therefore, the journey of reconciliation at times might feel harder for them,” Kudloo said.

Hard work still needed

Aatami said despite an increasing focus on reconciliation in Canada in recent years, still too few non-Indigenous people are aware that the residential school system is not just a legacy of the past, but something that continues to impact Indigenous communities and families today.

The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation can help contribute to that understanding, but it’s important that the symbolism of the day doesn’t replace that hard work still needed for Indigenous autonomy and self-determination, he said.

“We’ve come along way, but the mentality of a lot of non-Aboriginals in Canada is still that Aboriginals should cater to the non-native society, instead of [the non-Indigenous] trying to understand and respect Aboriginal people’s societies themselves. And without that, they’ll be no healing.

“My message when I speak to government is always the same, Inuit don’t want any more than their fellow Canadians, we just want equity.”

Honouring survivors

The history of residential schools in Canada dates back to the 1800s.

Inuit and First Nations children were sent to the federally funded, primarily church-run schools, far from their communities and their cultures, and often against the wishes of their families.

The goal was to assimilate the children into European culture. Physical and sexual abuse was rampant in many of the institutions, and many students were beaten for speaking their Indigenous languages.

Over 130 of the institutions were located across Canada and more than 150,000 Inuit, Métis and First Nations children are estimated to have been in the residential school system.

Students at a residential school in Fort Resolution in Canada's Northwest Territories. (Library and Archives Canada/From a story by Radio-Canada.ca)
Residential school students are seen in an archival photo of a classroom in Resolution, in Canada’s Northwest Territories. (National Archives of Canada)

The last residential school in Canada was closed in 1998.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up as part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, a class action settlement set up to help former students. The commission ran from 2008 to 2015 and its final report included 94 calls to action. Call to Action 80 was the creation of a  National Day for Truth and Reconciliation to honour survivors and reflect how the residential schools system impacted communities, families and Indigenous societies.

The bill to create the federal holiday received royal assent in June after the discovery of 215 unmarked graves in Kamloops, British Columbia (B.C.) in May on the site of a former residential school. This was followed by the discovery of hundreds of other unmarked graves across Canada, followed, including 751 in Saskatchewan, and 160 in B.C.’s Southern Gulf Islands.

The day is now an annual statutory holiday for federal employees and workers in federally regulated workplaces.

“It’s sad that the Government of Quebec doesn’t want to acknowledge the day for Aboriginal people and reconciliation,” says Pita Aatami, the president of Makivik Corporation, of Quebec’s decision not to make September 30 a provincial statutory holiday. (George Berthe/Makivik Corporation Treasurer)

Some provinces and territories however are also giving their provincial or territorial public sector employees the day off, including the Northwest Territories and British Columbia. Provinces like Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia have made the day a provincial statutory holiday, while others like Ontario and Quebec have not.

Aatami said the decision is a lost opportunity for Quebec.

“It’s sad that the Government of Quebec doesn’t want to acknowledge the day for Aboriginal people and reconciliation,” he said, adding that he wrote to Quebec Premier François Legault last week to express his misgivings about the decision and urging him to reconsider, and is waiting for a response.

“Quebec should do the right thing,” Aatami  said.

The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation also coincides with Orange Shirt Day, founded in 2013 to spotlight the legacy of residential schools. Orange shirt Day was initiated by Phyllis Webstad, a residential school survivor  from the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation in British Columbia.

The day takes its name from when Webstad first arrived at residential school and had her new orange shirt taken away from her. September 30 was chosen because it was the day children were taken to residential schools. 

Write to Eilís at eilis.quinn@cbc.ca 

Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: COVID-19 delays delivery of apology to Inuit residential school survivors in Atlantic Canada, Eye on the Arctic

Finland: Sami Parliament in Finland agrees more time needed for Truth and Reconciliation Commission preparation, Eye on the Arctic

Greenland: Danish PM apologizes to Greenlanders taken to Denmark as children in 1950s, Eye on the Arctic

Norway: Can cross-border cooperation help decolonize Sami-language education, Eye on the Arctic

Sweden: Sami in Sweden start work on structure of Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Eye on the Arctic

United States: Alaska reckons with missing data on murdered Indigenous women, Alaska Public Media

Eilís Quinn, Eye on the Arctic

Eilís Quinn is an award-winning journalist and manages Radio Canada International’s Eye on the Arctic news cooperation project. Eilís has reported from the Arctic regions of all eight circumpolar countries and has produced numerous documentary and multimedia series about climate change and the issues facing Indigenous peoples in the North.

Her investigative report "Death in the Arctic: A community grieves, a father fights for change," about the murder of Robert Adams, a 19-year-old Inuk man from Arctic Quebec, received the silver medal for “Best Investigative Article or Series” at the 2019 Canadian Online Publishing Awards. The project also received an honourable mention for excellence in reporting on trauma at the 2019 Dart Awards in New York City.

Her report “The Arctic Railway: Building a future or destroying a culture?” on the impact a multi-billion euro infrastructure project would have on Indigenous communities in Arctic Europe was a finalist at the 2019 Canadian Association of Journalists award in the online investigative category.

Her multimedia project on the health challenges in the Canadian Arctic, "Bridging the Divide," was a finalist at the 2012 Webby Awards.

Her work on climate change in the Arctic has also been featured on the TV science program Découverte, as well as Le Téléjournal, the French-Language CBC’s flagship news cast.

Eilís has worked for media organizations in Canada and the United States and as a TV host for the Discovery/BBC Worldwide series "Best in China."

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