A Sea of Orange: Canada’s First-Ever National Day for Truth and Reconciliation


© Tandem X Visuals/Unsplash

By Jennifer Ashawasegai-Pereira

On September 30, 2021, Orange shirts filled screens across multiple social media platforms around the country. First Nations held small events in their communities while schools, municipalities, and corporations marked the first-ever National Day for Truth and Reconciliation with educational events.

While the orange shirt campaign is nothing new in Indigenous communities—the first Orange Shirt Day took place in 2013—the summer of 2021 saw the Government of Canada announce new legislation to recognize the day as a national statutory holiday, as recommended by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action released in 2015.

About 150,000 First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children attended Indian Residential Schools from the 1860s until as recently as 1996. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada documented stories from Survivors and families and issued a report called “Calls to Action.” Recommendation 80 of the report states, “We call upon the federal government, in collaboration with Aboriginal peoples, to establish, as a statutory holiday, a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation 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.”

This particular recommendation was implemented after the first 215 bodies of children were recovered in late May 2021 at a former Indian Residential School in Kamloops, B.C. By the end of November, over 7,000 remains had been recovered, and the number continues to climb as communities and families search for unmarked graves.

These Indigenous-known atrocities have shocked Canadians into opening their eyes and hearts, as many of them had little to no knowledge of Indian Residential Schools before the news this past spring.

national day for truth and reconciliationnational day for truth and reconciliation
© iStockphoto/Michel Guenette

Wahnapitae First Nation Chief Larry Roque told the media on September 30 that people need to learn and acknowledge Canadian history. “It should be an opportunity to read the Treaties and learn about the realities of Residential Schools,” he told Sudbury.com. “At the end of the day, Canadians should have a better understanding of and respect for our beliefs, our culture, and our way of life.”

Meanwhile, Anishinabek Nation Grand Council Chief Reg Niganobe noticed that while awareness has been increasing, there is still a long way to go. “I [saw] orange shirts everywhere,” he said. “It was hard to find orange shirts; awareness is growing.”

The Anishinabek Nation lowered its flags on September 30th, and staff attended events in their respective communities.

Farther north, Fort William First Nation marked the occasion with a two-day pow wow, which included a sunrise ceremony along with education, awareness, and healing through dancing and drumming. Meanwhile, next door in Thunder Bay, Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) hosted a ceremony commemorating the day on the grounds of Pope John Paul II Senior Elementary School, which is also the site of former St. Joseph’s Indian Residential School.

In a September 30th statement, NAN Deputy Grand Chief Anna Betty Achneepineskum said, “We will grieve for the youth who never made it home and honour the healing journeys of Survivors and their families as more unmarked gravesites are discovered across the country.”

At the gathering of hundreds of people, Deputy Grand Chief Achneepineskum said, “It’s encouraging through the years that we come to these gatherings, that heaviness has gotten lighter.”
She supports the day because it has shed light on Canada’s past, and people are taking more notice of Indian Residential Schools survivors. “I’ve heard comments from [Survivors] saying, ‘Finally, we’re getting the recognition and acknowledgement,’” she said.

Anishinabek Nation Grand Council Chief Reg Niganobe © Anishinabek Nation

“It’s encouraging [that] more people are coming out and wanting to learn. That’s one of the benefits of having this day as a holiday—people will ask those questions and have those discussions.”

Although the national day has been received positively and with optimism at noticing recent changes in public support, Grand Council Chief Niganobe wishes governments were more on board to raise awareness and help realize reconciliation.

“It would be nice to see the prime minister at a large gathering,” Grand Council Chief Niganobe commented. “All leaders, really—national and provincial. It would be nice to see [the Province of Ontario] turn it into a [statutory holiday], with time off for people to attend gatherings.”

“It’s a dark part of history, but it’s something that has to be acknowledged to be able to make the changes,” Grand Council Chief Niganobe added.

The community work to recover the remains of relatives in unmarked graves will continue. “We will do everything possible to support our communities and ensure that any approach developed for the identification and recovery of our children will be led by Survivors and their families,” Grand Chief Achneepineskum said. “We are committed to supporting Survivors, their families and all NAN First Nations throughout the difficult work to come.”

There’s much work to do going ahead, but perhaps the burden will be a little lighter considering the breadth of awareness that has taken place across the country, one orange shirt at a time. There is hope in the sea of orange shirts.

Read more at http://chiefs-of-ontario.org/resources/theadvocate/

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Chiefs of Ontario supports all First Nations in Ontario as they assert their sovereignty, jurisdiction, and their chosen expression of nationhood.


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