The federal government’s intention to enact a statutory holiday aimed at remembering the legacy of Canada’s residential school system has drawn mixed reactions from Indigenous Canadians, with responses to the plan ranging from cautious optimism to open disdain.
Many have expressed concern that such an occasion — dedicated to reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples — could simply devolve into another day off for most Canadians, and note that a lot of work will need to be done if the day is to achieve its goal.
“Reconciliation right now is a great buzz word, but that’s kind of where it seems to end,” said Frances Moore, an Anishinaabe woman from Timiskaming First Nation in Quebec who now lives in London, Ont. “If this truly is about reconciliation, then great. Do this day, but let’s also see action in other ways.”
The steps needed to make a prospective day of remembrance effective would have to involve the government making educational resources available across the country to ensure the effects of residential schools remain front and centre, Moore said.
Input from Indigenous Canadians from all walks of life will be essential to designing a meaningful tribute day, but they should not be left alone to shoulder the burden of educating the broader public, Moore said.
Governments and allies, she said, should “step up” and relieve survivors and those who love them of the “emotional labour” of telling traumatizing stories that have not yet come to an end.
The government-funded, church-run residential schools operated for more than a century. Indigenous children were ripped away from their families, usually starting in late September, and sent to schools where they endured widespread sexual, emotional and physical abuse.
Evelyn Korkmaz, who spent several years at the St. Anne’s Residential School in northern Ontario, said the projected day of tribute would do little more than re-open those wounds for her and her fellow survivors.
“Who wants to be reminded every year your country and Church betrayed and destroyed your innocence? No thanks,” Korkmaz wrote in an email, adding that she is not aware of widespread efforts to consult survivors before the government floated the possibility of a stat holiday.
One organization involved in sustaining Remembrance Day, a potentially comparable federal holiday, echoed Moore’s call for a focus on education.
Anthony Wilson-Smith, chief executive officer for Historica Canada, said Remembrance Day has lodged itself in the collective psyche in part because of its widespread adoption across the country and the substantial educational resources that have gone into preserving its purpose.
“With Remembrance Day you can go to any one of the cenotaphs across this country that every small town … and big city has,” he said. “If you’re going to have this day of remembrance for survivors and the loss from residential schools, what kind of tools are you going to provide to communities to do that?”
If Parliament did approve a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation as a statutory holiday, it would only apply to federally regulated workplaces — the civil service, marine ports, airports, airlines and telecommunications companies. Provinces and territories would have to amend their existing labour codes to establish any additional day off.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said the details of a prospective day off are still in the works and has pledged that no plans will be made without extensive Indigenous community consultation.
For one non-Indigenous man, honouring that pledge will be critical.
Matthew Martin-Ellis of Toronto said he wants to use a prospective day as an educational opportunity, but would like to hear from survivors and their families as to how to pay tribute respectfully.
He noted, however, that he didn’t want to see a holiday turn into an occasion that suggests the inequities Indigenous Canadians face are in the past.
“If it ends up being a day that seeks to congratulate us on a victory and a reconciliation that we haven’t achieved yet, I think we should not pursue this,” Martin-Ellis said.
Carolyn Hepburn, a Cree woman from Fort Albany First Nation, said she sees the government plan as a valuable sign of good will.
She does feel, however, that Ottawa should reconsider attaching the commemorative day to either Indigenous People’s Day on June 21 or Orange Shirt Day on Sept. 30 as the government has indicated it’s considering.
“We don’t want to lose the messaging on either of those days,” she said, adding that events like Orange Shirt day — when people don the brightly hewed tops to pay tribute to a survivor who had a treasured possession taken from her when she entered the residential school system — serve their own purpose in advancing what should be an ongoing conversation about reconciliation.
For others, like Native Council of Nova Scotia Chief Lorraine Augustine, the entire idea of the holiday smacks of insincerity.
She said that while she could not speak for others in her community, she is personally struggling to see any merit in the proposal despite the fact that it comes as a result of a recommendation from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
“How can you honour (residential school survivors) after what you’ve done to them?” she said. “No amount of apology, no amount of money is going to take away the hurt and what they went through.”
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version had the wrong last name for Matthew Martin-Ellis.