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With declaring a national holiday on Sept. 30 only fulfilling one of 94 calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, there is still more work to be done, Indigenous voices from across the country say.
“I think it’s important that we do get the day to pause, reflect and learn together but when we think of every day, we still have oppression that exists,” Jenny Kay Dupuis, Indigenous author, artist and educator, told Global News, speaking from Toronto, within the Dish With One Spoon territory.
“Nothing is going to be healed until we face and understand that oppression exists.”
In June 2021, the federal government passed Bill C-5, naming Sept. 30 a federal statutory holiday called the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
The step responds to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 80th call to action, for the government of Canada “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.”
The holiday applies to federally regulated workers, including banks, airlines and the post office.
In 1928, Dupuis’ great grandparents were visited by an agent who took her grandmother and some of her siblings away to a residential school in northern Ontario.
When her grandmother, Irene, arrived, her name was changed to a number, she was split from her siblings, her hair was cut and she was prohibited from speaking her own language.
“My grandmother thought she was going to be OK. She didn’t really know what to expect,” said Dupuis.
This is what prompted Dupuis to write her first children’s picture book, I Am Not a Number, based on her grandmother’s experience.
“This is really a story about resilience. We have to recognize that there are thousands of unique stories that exist of how children were taken and forced to leave their home communities.”
For Dupuis, she says she grew up in “silence.”
“I didn’t know a lot about my history that existed in my community. That’s hard on someone that’s young,” said Dupuis.
“And there’s a lot of other people like me as well.”
The Kamloops Indian Residential School operated between 1890 and 1969. The federal government took over the facility from the Catholic Church and ran it as a day school until it closed in 1978.
The national Truth and Reconciliation Commission has records of at least 51 children dying at the school between 1915 and 1963.
In 2015, a 4,000-page report by the commission detailed the harsh mistreatment at the schools, including emotional, physical and sexual abuse of children, and at least 4,100 deaths at the institutions.
At the Kamloops school, health officials in 1918 believed children were not being adequately fed, leading to malnutrition, according to the report.
Alongside the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is Orange Shirt Day, established out of third-generation residential school survivor Phyllis Webstad’s story of being stripped of her shiny orange shirt, bought for her by her grandmother, while attending the St. Joseph’s Mission residential school at the age of six.
Orange Shirt Day began in 2013, in Williams Lake, B.C., encouraging Canadians to mark the day by wearing orange in honour of the thousands of residential school survivors.
“For teaching about Orange Shirt Day or about residential schools, I think the biggest key is that the learning doesn’t happen only in September,” Jessica Madiratta, an Indigenous advocate teacher speaking from Treaty 4 territory in the homelands of the Métis in Regina, told Global News.
“My mom was a day school survivor. My grandmother was a residential school survivor and numerous family members have attended residential schools. I know the impacts it’s had on my family and now I have the chance to bring that history to students.”
An estimated 150,000 Indigenous children were involuntarily taken to attend residential schools in Canada, according to the federal government.
More than 60 per cent of the schools were run by the Catholic Church.
The church’s current leader, Pope Francis, visited Canada in July for a trip focused on Indigenous reconciliation where he apologized for the “deplorable evil” committed by the church.
Federally, there were 140 residential schools operated between 1831 and 1998. The last school closed less than 25 years ago.
“Residential schools impacted Indigenous communities in so many ways,” said Madiratta
“It’s an ongoing process and I just encourage folks to see that it’s not just one day we have to learn about truth and reconciliation – it’s every day. We’re still in the middle of a genocide that was perpetuated by policy so until Canadians understand that, we’re not going to see changes in people being able to reclaim their land, reclaim their identity and reclaim their culture.”
“The system is just not designed for us to be able to do so at this time.”
Robinson co-founded Voices, Calgary’s Coalition of Two-Spirit and Racialized LGBTQIA+, in 2016 to help talk about extreme marginalization specifically towards queer and trans Indigenous people.
“The understanding that Canadians have completely deprived us of our identity and our culture is the number-one issue. For anyone to feel comfortable identifying as two-spirit and reclaiming their identity as an Indigenous person is within itself already a huge win for us.”
Robinson’s goal is to create a better place for her daughter.
“I can’t go back to my homeland, I don’t know my language. All is can do at this point is try to create structures and infrastructures for my daughter to be able to identify who she is.”
“My hope is people will really step up, unlearn aggressive behaviour and start putting effort towards anti-racism and Indigenous education,” she said.
Across Canada, buildings will be illuminated in orange from Sept. 30 at 7 p.m. to sunrise on Oct. 1. This includes federal buildings such as the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill.
A one-hour national commemorative gathering will also be broadcast live from Ottawa’s Lebreton Flats on Sept. 30.
In B.C., the day has not yet been declared a statutory holiday but the province has marked it as a day of commemoration. There are discussions about making the day a holiday in 2023.
In Alberta, the day also isn’t observed as a statutory holiday. Instead, the government has designated it an “optional general holiday.”
In Nova Scotia, the day also is not a paid holiday but provincial government offices, public schools and regulated child care will be closed.
Schools in the province will also be closed for the day and all provincial government buildings will be lowered to half-mast that day.
Last year it was announced Prince Edward Island’s premier, Dennis King, would be introducing an amendment to the Employment Standards Act to officially recognize Sept. 30 as a holiday.
Provincial government offices, schools in the public branch and la Commission scolaire de langue française will be closed for the day.
Beginning this year, Sept. 30 will be added to the list of statutory holidays in the Northwest Territories after the government amended their Employment Standard Act.
This year in Nunavut, the day will also be designated a statutory holiday, applying to the territory’s public service employees and employees of territorially regulated businesses.
If you are an Indian Residential School survivor, or have been affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419
— with files from The Canadian Press
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