1st National Day for Truth and Reconciliation draws mixed feelings from Indigenous community

Click to play video: 'What Canada’s inaugural National Day for Truth and Reconciliation will look like'
What Canada’s inaugural National Day for Truth and Reconciliation will look like
WATCH: What Canada's inaugural National Day for Truth and Reconciliation will look like – Sep 29, 2021

As Canada marks its first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation to honour lost children and survivors of residential schools, the Indigenous community is approaching the day with mixed emotions.

Coinciding with the annual Orange Shirt Day, Sept. 30 is being recognized as a federal statutory holiday to give Canadians a chance to reflect on the legacies of the residential school system, colonial policies and the cultural genocide of Indigenous Peoples in Canada.

As one of the 94 calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, it’s a “good first step” to have a formal day recognizing the genocide, but more needs to be done to deliver justice to the victims, said Dr. Sarah Funnell, a First Nations family physician and public health specialist in Ottawa, Ont.

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“One day is not nearly enough,” said Funnell, an Algonquin native, who is also founding director of the Centre for Indigenous Health Research and Education at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Medicine.

“But we have to begin somewhere.”

Click to play video: 'Creator of Orange Shirt Day on raising awareness for National Truth and Reconciliation Day'
Creator of Orange Shirt Day on raising awareness for National Truth and Reconciliation Day

The Orange Shirt Day began in 2013 to mark the story of a third-generation residential school survivor, Phyllis Webstad, whose new orange shirt – given to her by her grandmother – was stripped from her on the first day she attended a B.C. residential school.

The House of Commons unanimously supported legislation in June to also make Sept. 30 a federally recognized holiday for all government employees and workers in federally regulated workplaces.

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But only a handful of provincial and territorial governments are having public servants and schools observe the day.

Ashley Bach, a member of the Mishkeegogamang First Nation, said while she was excited that the federal government was willing to support the day she said she was also “very disappointed that several provinces were not behind this at all.”

“It’s … an opportunity for businesses and organizations to take actions, especially in provinces where the holiday isn’t being recognized or honored and encourage their staff and all of their patrons as well to go spend the day educating themselves,” the 27-year-old said.

“Reconciliation is really about giving Indigenous people their power back so that they can heal,” said Dr. Sarah Funnell. Photo credit: Brittany Lee Photography

An estimated 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Metis children attended residential schools between the 1860s and 1996. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission documented stories from survivors and families and issued a report in 2015.

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The report details mistreatment at the schools, including the emotional, physical and sexual abuse of children, and at least 4,100 deaths.

While the Trudeau government from its inception in 2015 promised it would implement every last one of the 94 calls to action, it has only completed one of the six involving missing children and burials:  number 72 — the student memorial register.

In total, as of June 30, 2021, 14 calls to action have been completed, 23 are in progress with projects underway, 37 are in progress with projects proposed, and 20 have yet to be started, according to the British Columbia Treaty Commission.

Six years since that report, Funnell said the response to address TRC’s recommendations has been “too slow.”

It’s an opinion shared by many other Indigenous people in Canada.

“It’s been a very, very slow response,” said Pamela Beebe, a member of the Kainai First Nation who is currently working with the Calgary Homeless Foundation.

“There’s still so much work to do,” she added.

Pamela Beebe urged all Canadians to wear an orange shirt and reach out to their local Indigenous communities on Sept. 30. Photo credit: Tito Gomez

Pressure has been mounting on the government to deliver on its pledge following the discovery of almost 1,000 unmarked graves at residential schools across Canada this year, sparking anger and grief country-wide.

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Earlier in May, the remains of 215 children were found buried on the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. Weeks later, the Cowessess First Nation discovered an estimated 751 unmarked graves at a former Saskatchewan residential school site.

Linda ManyGuns, the associate vice-president of indigenization and decolonization at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alta., said she was heartened to see a real urgency within society to know the truth.

“I acknowledge and I am so grateful to be at this point in time in history, where I actually see a difference occurring in society and I see people listening,” she said.

Click to play video: 'Ontario community leaders disappointed National Day for Truth and Reconciliation will not be provincial holiday'
Ontario community leaders disappointed National Day for Truth and Reconciliation will not be provincial holiday

ManyGuns, of the Siksika First Nation, said the recent discovery of the unmarked graves only solidified what Indigenous people have known for more than 150 years.

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“This is not new for us,” she said. “But I think that with the discovery of the bodies, people realize that … there’s actual physical evidence that establishes … the depth of the problem.”

Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, said Canadians should use the day to learn about the history of residential schools and make an effort to implement the TRC’s calls to action.

“Whether you’re in the corporate sector, the educational sector, or whether in the public sector or you’re just a concerned citizen, there’s something there for you to do to make a difference,” she said.

“And that’s really what the test of the success of this day will be, is how many people actually take action to make reconciliation real.

Cindy Blackstock pictured wearing a skirt specially designed for Orange Shirt Day by students at Seneca College in Toronto. Photo credit: Andrew/Magneta Photos

Blackstock will have a busy day Thursday taking part in the laying of 57,000 tiles – painted by students from across Canada in memory of the lost children and residential school survivors – at Ottawa’s Beachwood cemetery.

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She is also organizing a 45-minute reconciling history tour to the gravesites of some key actors in residential schools.

Funnell, like Blackstock, said the day should not be considered a holiday because it is not celebratory in nature.

She herself is approaching it with “mixed emotions” because of all the loss of life, language and culture Indigenous people have endured.

“It’s hard to think of ways to celebrate such a tragedy,” Funnell told Global News.

Click to play video: 'National Truth and Reconciliation Day isn’t a holiday, Okanagan Indigenous leaders caution'
National Truth and Reconciliation Day isn’t a holiday, Okanagan Indigenous leaders caution

But her hope is that non-Indigenous people spend the day learning and that Indigenous people use it for healing, with a collective action to put pressure on policymakers to not only address TRC’s call to action, but to also grant justice to the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

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“That’s what the day should be about,” she said. “We can’t wait any longer.”

–With files from The Canadian Press

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