On September 30, 2021, Canada is marking its first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. The holiday was announced by the Trudeau government in June, after the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves that confirmed the horrors of Indian Residential Schools.
The establishment of a statutory holiday was one of 94 calls to action released by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in June 2015. The TRC found that more than 4,000 named and unnamed Indigenous children died in Indian Residential Schools across Canada, though its Chief Commissioner and former Senator Murray Sinclair estimates that the true number may be closer to 25,000.
In calling for a national holiday, the TRC sought to honour Survivors, their families, and communities and to make sure that “public commemoration of the history and legacy of residential schools remains a vital component of the reconciliation process.”
Six years later, the government has finally listened to that call and legislated a federal holiday.
It’s important to note that the creation of this day as a holiday was opposed by many First Nations and their leaders across the country.
This day as a holiday isn’t for the Indigenous peoples who have chosen to share their land with Canadians. It’s intended for settler Canadians, so they can recognize the pain and hurt they’ve caused in their relationship with those who were here before them, such as the Anishinaabe (Ojibwe), Nehiyaw (Cree), or Mi’kmaq to name a few.
The focus on the pain caused by settlers is settlers seeing themselves first, rather than appreciating Indigenous contributions to their well-being.
Nevertheless, the day offers an important opportunity for all Canadians to pause and reflect on the truths about the country’s history and present.
And the response from some provinces to this holiday tells us a lot about just how much work remains on the road to true reconciliation.
While the day is a statutory holiday that applies to all federally regulated employees, only some provinces and territories are observing it as a statutory holiday.
British Columbia is making September 30 as a day of commemoration but has not set it as a statutory holiday. Yukon is also not recognizing the day as a stat holiday but says it will close schools and work with First Nation communities to decide how to mark the day in the future. And in Nunavut, the day will be formally recognized as a statutory holiday starting next year.
Most notably, the provinces of Alberta, New Brunswick, Ontario, Quebec, and Saskatchewan have chosen not to designate the day as a public holiday, leaving it up to employers to decide whether employees have the day off.
More than 60% of Indigenous Peoples in Canada live in those five provinces alone. This means that a majority of the Indigenous population in the country will not be allowed to take the day off to commemorate and remember the children who were taken from them.
And those provinces have a lot in common. Not only do they each have fairly large Indigenous populations, but they are also all led by Conservative Premiers and are heavily invested in extractive industries that trample over Indigenous rights.
What if, as Murray Sinclair has suggested, provinces across Canada chose to mark the Day for Truth and Reconciliation as they do in honouring veterans on Remembrance Day?
The most important goal of the TRC was not just uncovering what happened at residential schools, he said recently in an interview with CBC Radio. It was to make what happened “part of our national memory.”
That’s why legislating a day of commemoration is important: to force everyone in the country to sit with the uncomfortable truths of the history and ongoing legacy of Canada’s colonialism and genocide.
Canadians have recently started recognizing the wrongs done to Indigenous people. According to a recent poll done by Nanos Research, Canadians are “nearly twice as likely to say reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people is important to them.” It’s time for all our governments to collectively recognize the harms they’ve caused to Indigenous people and take meaningful action to remedy those harms. Recognizing the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation as a statutory holiday is a tiny step, listening to the concerns of their constituents would be better but we’ll get there.