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Call to Action # 80: Commemoration (79-83)

The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is Saturday. Here’s what you need to know

September 25, 2023

The federal statutory holiday, coinciding with Orange Shirt Day, commemorates residential school survivors and the children who never returned home.

main every child matters
In this file photo, a memorial is displayed on Parliament Hill as ceremonies take place for the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in Ottawa in 2021.Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press File Photo

Toronto Star: This Saturday will be a day of solemn reflection for many Canadians as the country marks its third annual National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. The federal statutory holiday, which falls on Sept. 30 each year, honours residential school survivors, along with their families, communities and the thousands of other children who never made it home.

Here’s what you should know about the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, its origins and how communities across the country will be marking the day.

Click on the following link to view the video:

What is the history of Canada’s residential school system?
The Mohawk Institute Residential School in Branford, Ont., was established in 1831 and closed its doors in the 1970s.Lucas Oleniuk / Toronto Star File Photo

It’s estimated that more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children attended a residential school in Canada. The system, which was operated by the federal government in partnership with the Anglican, Catholic, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches, among others, aimed to assimilate Indigenous children into the dominant culture by isolating them from their communities and traditions.

The first church-run residential school opened in 1831. The last residential school closed 27 years ago, in 1996.

However, the physical and psychological impacts from the residential school system continue to this day. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), which interviewed more than 6,000 witnesses, many of whom were residential survivors, detailed instances of physical and sexual abuse at residential schools in its landmark 2015 report.

The TRC concluded that residential schools were “a systematic, government- sponsored attempt to destroy Aboriginal cultures and languages and to assimilate Aboriginal Peoples so that they no longer existed as distinct peoples,” going on to characterize the system as “cultural genocide.”

How many children died in the residential school system?
Justice Murray Sinclair asks residential school survivors to stand at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Ottawa on June 2, 2015. Sinclair co-led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on residential schools.Adrian Wyld / The Canadian Press File Photo

No one knows how many children died in Canada’s residential school system. In 2021, shortly after the discovery of 215 unmarked graves at the Kamloops Indian Residential School, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation and the TRC said it so far documented 4,117 deaths of Indigenous children at residential schools.

In 2015, Justice Murray Sinclair, who headed the TRC, estimated there may be up to 6,000 deaths attributed to the residential school system. Sinclair noted at the time that the federal government stopped recording deaths in 1920, after the chief medical officer at Indian Affairs suggested children were dying at an alarming rate.

“He was fired,” Sinclair said. “The government stopped recording deaths of children in residential schools, we think, probably because the rates were so high.”

The actual number of deaths, however, could be well beyond any previous estimates, as Indigenous communities continue to discover additional unmarked graves of children who died at residential schools.

Why was the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation established?
In this file photo from 2022, Murray Sinclair makes his way to place a pair of children shoes during a ceremony on National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press File Photo.

The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation was officially designated as a statutory holiday by the federal government in 2021.

The establishment of an annual day of reflection was one of the 94 calls to action detailed by the TRC. The commission recommended the federal government, in collaboration with Indigenous Peoples, create a statutory holiday “to honour Survivors, their families, and communities, and ensure that public commemoration of the history and legacy of residential schools remains a vital component of the reconciliation process.”

The first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in 2021 followed a summer of reckoning, as hundreds of unmarked graves were discovered at the sites of former residential schools across Canada, offering credence to Indigenous families who long suspected that children who died in the residential school system were buried at those unmarked sites.

Why do people wear orange on National Day for Truth and Reconciliation?
Residential school survivor Phyllis Webstad founded Orange Shirt Day in 2013.Darryl Dyck / The Canadian Press File Photo

The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation falls on the same day as Orange Shirt Day, an Indigenous-led grassroots movement that aims to raise awareness of the intergenerational impacts of the residential school system and reinforce the idea that “every child matters.”

The commemorative day was started in 2013 by Phyllis Webstad, a residential school survivor who told her story about how her shiny orange shirt, gifted by her grandmother, was taken away on her first day at a residential school.

Every Sept. 30, Canadians are encouraged to wear orange to honour all the residential school survivors like Webstad. The colour is meant to represent how generations of Indigenous children were stripped of their culture, freedom and self-confidence.

How will Canada mark this year’s National Day for Truth and Reconciliation?
In this file photo, Jonel Beauvais, Wolf clan from Akwesasne speaks on Parliament Hill during the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in Ottawa.Lars Hagberg / AFP via Getty Images File Photo

Communities across the country will be hosting events and activities to mark the third annual National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

Many buildings, including the Peace Tower in Ottawa, will be illuminated orange from 7 p.m. on Saturday to sunrise on Sunday to commemorate the day. A national gathering will also be broadcast live from Parliament Hill.

Leading up to the statutory holiday is Truth and Reconciliation Week and many schools will be participating in the programming. Canadians can also register for 50-minute virtual “lunch and learn” sessions, hosted by the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, each weekday this week.

In Toronto, flags at City Hall and civic centres will be lowered to half-mast Saturday and the Toronto sign will be lit orange. The Survivors’ Flag will also be flown at City Hall.

Joshua Chong

Joshua Chong is a staff reporter on the Star’s Express Desk.