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Canadians reflect about residential schools on Truth and Reconciliation Day

Speeches and events happen even as the grim work that helped inspire the day continues
AFN National Chief RoseAnne Archibald speaks at a Miyo-wiciwitowin Day event at Mosaic Stadium in Regina, Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022. The national chief of the Assembly of First Nations says today’s National Day of Truth and Reconciliation is about the survivors who suffered in Canada’s residential schools and the children who never made it home. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Michael Bell

With drumming and singing, at powwows and public ceremonies, communities across the country are marking the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation.

The federal statutory holiday, also known as Orange Shirt Day, was established last year to remember children who died while being forced to attend residential schools, as well as those who survived, and the families and communities still affected by lasting trauma.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau joined representatives of various First Nations and dozens of people in orange for a sunrise ceremony in Niagara Falls, Ont. He stood silently as the ceremony took place and spoke with residential school survivors afterwards.

Later in the morning, Trudeau addressed an event to mark the day.

“This is a day for Indigenous Peoples. Today to recognize that yes, you are still here, you are still strong and you are an indissociable part of the present and the future we build every day as a country,” he told the crowd.

“It is a day to remember, to grieve, to take another step along healing. But it is also a day for non-Indigenous peoples to recognize that you should not have to carry this burden alone.”

The speeches and events occur even as the grim work that helped inspire the day continues.

In Mission, B.C., where Orange Shirt Day finds its origins, work began in September to search for graves with ground-penetrating radar at the former St. Mary’s Indian Residential School. The City of Mission said in a statement the work would continue as long as dry weather allows.

It was at another Mission school, St. Joseph Mission Residential School, where student Phyllis Webstad had an orange shirt, a gift from her grandmother, taken away from her in the 1970s.

Orange Shirt Day would become the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation, a federal statutory holiday established last year following the discovery of suspected unmarked burial sites at former residential schools, by the Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc nation in Kamloops, B.C., Saskatchewan’s Cowessess First Nation and others.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief RoseAnne Archibald said in an interview that the day was about residential school survivors, like Webstad, as well as the children who never returned from them.

“It’s their day, especially those who suffered in those institutions and survived and then I also feel that it’s for all the little ones who died in those institutions and didn’t make it home,” she said.

“The day is about them as well. It’s also a time to reflect. It’s a time to learn about Canada’s true history.”

She said the day was also an opportunity for Canadians to reflect on the Indigenous experience.

In Ottawa, Gov. Gen. Mary Simon – the first Indigenous person to hold the post – welcomed nearly 100 school children and staff to Rideau Hall, where she spoke to them about reconciliation.

She said people wear orange shirts to show that every child matters, which is important to do because of how traumatic residential schools were to Indigenous children.

Simon told the children she grew up speaking Inuktitut.

“I still speak my language every day,” she said, adding she doesn’t want to forget it.

Simon, who is 75, said at her age she’s learning a new language, French, and told the kids it would be good if they could a learn an Indigenous word every day. She then went on to teach them one in Inuktitut that means to never give up.

Simon also talked to the children about persevering through hard things and tied it back to her own history, having grown up in a small, isolated village and now working at Rideau Hall as the Governor General.

“It wasn’t handed to me,” she said.

In Toronto, a group drummed and sang Indigenous songs as a woman in traditional Indigenous attire danced at a gathering at the city’s downtown Nathan Phillips Square.

Several dozen onlookers, some wearing orange shirts, occasionally cheered and clapped during the performance. One of the drummers said they were performing for both survivors of residential schools and those who didn’t return.

In the centre of Halifax’s downtown, hundreds gathered to mark the day and hear from Acadia First Nation Chief Deborah Robinson, Mi’kmaw elder Alan Knockwood and Halifax’s Indigenous adviser Cheryl Copage-Gehue.

Knockwood told the crowd at the city’s Grand Parade that as the community comes together to reflect on Canada’s legacy of colonialism, the children lost in the residential school system are “here in our hearts and they are with us here.”

He led a prayer in English and in Mi’kmaw.

“My language is still alive but residential school survivors like myself have a difficult time speaking it because it was beaten out of me. But I’m still here,” Knockwood said. “Survivors from residential schools are part of you, and now our legacy is that it will never happen again and that’s because all of you here will not allow it to happen again.”

Robinson told the crowd that she hopes everyone reflects on truth and reconciliation in their own way as they remember the suffering caused by residential schools.

While there has been progress towards supporting Indigenous people, Robinson said “it’s hard to deny, and I say this every year when I speak, that we have so far to go.”

The chief raised an orange flag created by a Nova Scotian Mi’kmaw artist with the Mi’kmaw petroglyph that represents a child.

While many of Nova Scotia’s planned events for the occasion have been postponed due to the damage from post-tropical storm Fiona, there will be a ceremony Friday at the site of the former Shubenacadie Indian Residential School and a light show in the evening at the old Halifax Memorial Library

In Prince Edward Island, the province says its flags have been lowered at provincial buildings to recognize the harm caused by the residential school system. But public events to mark the day are cancelled as work continues to repair damage caused by Fiona.

Some of the other events scheduled today include the illumination of the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill in orange, programming about residential schools at the Winnipeg Art Gallery and a community powwow at the Victoria-area Songhees Nation.

Canada’s residential school system, funded by the federal government and run by Catholic churches, was established in the 1800s. It removed roughly 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children from their families. The last school closed in 1997.

Many children were sexually, physically or psychologically abused in the system designed to get the “Indian” out of the child.

At Niagara Falls, Trudeau said the day was about truth.

“That truth is we all need to open our eyes to the truth of how Canada evolved and came to be and how we need to make deliberate choices to undo the falsehoods and the wrongness that is part of it,” he said.

“We are on the path, and it is going to take many years, but we must today and every day rededicate ourselves to that.”

—Maan Alhmidi, The Canadian Press

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