A prominent Indigenous activist says a new statutory holiday to mark the dark legacy of residential schools is a great idea but risks becoming “just another day off” unless there is an education program to go along with it.
On Wednesday, a spokesperson for Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez confirmed a report from the Globe and Mail that said the government is moving forward with plans to create a national statutory holiday to mark the legacy of residential schools. Over roughly a century, thousands of Indigenous children were taken from their families, forbidden to practice their culture, and subjected to physical, psychological and sexual abuse in the schools.
The decision itself is not new — the federal government implied it would do so when it accepted all the recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report in 2015.
However, the fact the government is now looking at how to do that is new.
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“The prime minister has said it many times: there is no relationship more important to Canada than the one with Indigenous peoples. We have committed to fulfilling all of the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” said Simon Ross, the minister’s press secretary.
“Call to Action 80 asks the government of Canada to establish a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation to honour the survivors of residential schools. That’s exactly what we will do, and we will do that in partnership with Indigenous peoples.”
Federal officials are in the process of developing a plan for how to move forward.
The goal is to make sure officials consult Indigenous people and work with them throughout the process.
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There’s no timeline at this point for when a statutory holiday could actually be created.
An official speaking on background would not say whether it could happen before or after the 2019 election but stressed that fulfilling the recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a priority for the government.
Rodriguez, speaking to reporters from Chambly, Quebec, also would not comment when asked about the dates under consideration but said the government is working to have discussions with Indigenous groups before coming to any decisions.
“We’ve been having discussions about this with the three major associations,” he said.
“We’re still discussing with a lot of people across the country about the details … It’s not up to us to decide the dates.”
Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said having Indigenous groups be a part of the process is crucial.
“The residential schools era is indeed a dark chapter, and we must never forget,” he said in a statement.
“A day dedicated to remembering and honouring the students of residential schools will help to increase public understanding of our shared history, and better inform our work together going forward. It is an important part of reconciliation and First Nations need to be involved in choosing an appropriate date.”
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Cindy Blackstock, an Indigenous activist and executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, praised news the government is moving forward with the plan but urged officials to think about how a national holiday should tie into the bigger picture of reconciliation.
“It’s a great idea if it’s partnered with a program to create a national educational monument,” said Blackstock.
She cautioned that creating a holiday without a plan for education and public remembrance could backfire if people don’t understand why they are getting the time off.
“I think that’s the danger if you don’t have it enveloped within a broader educational program … it can become just another day off.”
Rodriguez was asked whether the government also plans to create a national monument to mark the legacy of the school system.
He said no decision has been made, noting, “We don’t want to prejudge the results of those discussions.”