People & Culture

Behind the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation

Links to previous Canadian Geographic stories provide coverage and context

  • Jun 04, 2021
  • 1,027 words
  • 5 minutes
Phyllis Webstad Expand Image

A bill creating a national holiday to commemorate the tragic legacy of residential schools in Canada received royal assent Thurs., June 3, 2021. September 30 will become the first national day for truth and reconciliation, a statutory holiday for employees in the federal government and federally regulated workplaces.

The announcement comes in the wake of the heart-wrenching discovery last week of the remains of 215 children in unmarked graves at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.

Canadian Geographic would like to take this opportunity to share the powerful words and thoughts of just a few of the Indigenous Peoples who have helped the magazine to tell the stories of residential schools and move forward the process of truth and reconciliation. 

Stories of survival: Sometimes, the people you interview puncture you and you can’t leave them behind

The November/December 2017 issue of Canadian Geographic highlighted the words of members of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation survivor’s circle.

“I was five and a half when I was taken from my grandparents’ home on Opitsaht Island, B.C., and sent to Christie Residential School. It was two miles from my home. I didn’t get back home until I was a teenager. —Barney Williams, Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations, B.C. 

“I wa taken from my family when I was 10 years old, in the fall. Autumn is always difficult for me, when all the leaves start to change. It’s this heartache. The worst thing is to be taken from your family. I thought I had done something Wrong.” —Kukdookaa Terri Brown, member of Crow clan, Tahltan Nation, B.C.

“To tell the Canadian public about it is very hard, but it’s something that needs to be done. They don’t want to face what Canadian society did to Aboriginal Canadians. My hope is that every time I talk to a non-Aboriginal person that you will be able to offer some kind of solution, too, and say what you would be willing to do to be a reconciling person. You’ve asked us to give you this knowledge and go back into these places it’s very hard to be. Now you have a responsibility. What are you going to do about it?” —Doris Young, Opaskwayak Cree Nation, Man.

“Finally, finally, we are moving in the right direction. But residential schools are not only Indigenous history. It is Canadian history. All Canadians must practise inuuqatigiittiarniq, which means living with each other in peace and harmony. I’ve been promoting it for 10 years.” —Piita Irniq, Naujaat, Nunavut.

Survivor: The story of Phyllis Webstad and Orange Shirt Day

Phyllis Webstad spoke with Lisa Charleyboy about how she turned her residential school experience into a powerful tool for reconciliation through Orange Shirt Day.

“We chose September because that’s when kids went back to school — that’s when they were taken away,” Webstad says, adding that it felt divinely guided. “[That fall] when I went to the TRC event in Vancouver, [I was] sitting there listening to the truths being told, and an Elder sitting not far from me was talking, and she said that September was ‘crying month’ — and I knew then that we had chosen the right day.”

“We chose [the slogan] ‘every child matters’ because I talked about how I felt that I didn’t matter when I was in residential school. No matter how much I cried, nobody cared. Nobody. We weren’t hugged. We weren’t consoled. We could be half-dead and we weren’t tended to,” Webstad shares. “Every child that went to residential school, well, they all matter. Even the ones that didn’t come home, they matter. And it wasn’t until after we were using that slogan that I realized that it fits the past, the present and the future. It fits reconciliation — it’s one of those divine things that fits in this day of reconciliation.”

Interview: Ry Moran on truth, reconciliation and his hopes for Canada at 200 

In 2017, the then director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation reflected on Indigenous progress in 2017 and looked ahead to 2067.

“What we’re basically talking about when we talk about truth and reconciliation in the country is providing voice to groups of people, specifically Indigenous people, who have been marginalized. As we go through this process of reconciliation, we’re going to start hearing from people who we’ve never heard from before in this country, or at least only heard from in certain contexts or framed in certain ways. Change is inherently uncomfortable, but I think we as a country, we as Canadians, need to become much more comfortable with discomfort. We need to find a degree of peace hearing messages that perhaps we don’t want to hear, don’t understand. And we need to try to create the spaces within ourselves, within our society, within our organizations and institutions, within public discourse, for these uncomfortable truths to emerge.”

Long overdue, much welcomed: Two residential schools named National Historic Sites 

In 2020, Charlene Bearhead, Canadian Geographic’s director of reconciliation, comments in September 2020 on the naming of two residential schools as National Historic Sites.

“Five years after the delivery of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and the 94 calls to action, which include calls for commemoration, the recognition is an important step in acknowledging truth and embracing moral courage and integrity as a country. In my view, designating the two residential school grounds as National Historic Sites is far more significant than another statue in Ottawa. This gives hope that these school properties will be funded by Ottawa, and developed under the guidance and direction of the survivors and communities, as sites of memory and conscience to amplify learning opportunities for Canadians, and the world, related to the genocidal policies and practices of Canada related to the residential school system.”


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