by Kelly Chia, Staff Writer
Content warning: residential schools, racial trauma, sexual assault, and violence
September 30, 2021, will be Canada’s first Truth and Reconciliation Day. The day was finally made official on June 3, 2021, when both houses of Parliament passed Bill-C. This is a time of reckoning with Canada’s harmful legacy of residential schools, as well as honouring their survivors. This day of commemoration has been item 80 on the 94 Calls to Action offered by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) for the last six years. This is so the history and legacy of residential schools are properly commemorated.
This comes after the remains of 215 children were found on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in May 2021.
Of the 94 Calls to Actions, 13 have been completed and 29 are underway. Further, 32 projects have been proposed where relevant parties have committed to action or agreed to funding but have not followed through yet and 20 have not been started. Since May 2021, over 1,300 graves of children have been found. To this day, we are unsure how many children have died in residential schools.
After finding these remains at the former Kamloops residential school grounds, the director of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond said she had trouble accessing student records. In an article from CBC, Turpel-Lafond said First Nations communities are fighting against the federal government and Catholic Church in court to gain access to them. This has been an ongoing struggle with both institutions for over 20 years.
The TRC has requested these burial sites be investigated since 2009 when they asked the federal government for $1.5 million to help fund these efforts. This support would help identify how many children died in residential schools and investigate what administrative policies could have related to the deaths and illnesses of students. This was rejected by Indian Affairs.
If reconciliation is truly a Canadian priority, why has it taken so long for us to confront our history in this way? Even at this moment, we can not properly grieve every child that has been lost on these school grounds, and yet media coverage seems to have fallen compared to May.
We need Truth and Reconciliation Day because we cannot focus only on Indigenous issues when it is sensational. Additionally, it’s important for media coverage to not only focus on Indigenous resilience, but also Indigenous joy. Residential schools are only one component of the systemic racism Indigenous peoples continue to face.
Why we need this day, and why we need more
Truth and Reconciliation Day is one action pushed forward after the discovery of unmarked graves at Kamloops Residential School, as there had been calls to search the grounds for years. The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) at the University of Manitoba confirmed that across Canada, there have been 4,100 deaths from 1900 to 1971 related to residential schools, but there are likely thousands more. Because there are funding barriers with searching burial sites, and delays in retrieving school records, we do not have a full understanding of how devastating these schools were.
Residential schools were built solely to “assimilate” Indigenous identities into Canadian society. They ripped children from their families, cut off their hair, and replaced their names. The TRC said, “Discipline was harsh, and daily life was highly regimented. Aboriginal languages and cultures were demeaned and suppressed.” Many students would be punished for speaking their native language. The TRC also said there were no clear policies on discipline and lack of supervision led to sexual and physical assault.
Government inaction continues to oppress Indigenous peoples today. For example, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to fix drinking water advisories in First Nations communities by March 2021. However, the federal government has now said this won’t be completed until 2024 and it would not be until 2025–26 that some affected nations would have long-term solutions. The inability to access clean water is an example of the many health inequities Indigenous peoples face when receiving health care in this country. The Indigenous Health Working Group (IHWP) reported 78% of Indigenous peoples in Canada had racist experiences in healthcare settings, leading to a strong distrust of the healthcare system.
The IHWP also criticized federal policies that have intergenerational effects on Indigenous cultures and mental health. The Indian Act in 1876 oversaw sweeping policies that sanctioned the autonomy and cultures of Indigenous peoples, such as forcing people to drop their Indigenous status to go to university, join the military, or vote.
This is why we should push our federal government and other institutions, like the Catholic Church, to issue full apologies and provide funding to encourage reconciliation efforts.
The Catholic Church has not issued an apology for its role in the residential school system. While some individual churches have, the TRC and The Indian Residential School Survivors Society have requested a formal apology from Pope Francis, and they have not received it.
The Catholic Church agreed to compensate survivors $29 million in 2005, but CBC reported they have only managed to raise about four million after over a decade while dedicating $300 million towards building renovations.
What can we do?
To make sure survivors get their overdue compensation, we must put pressure on Pope Francis and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. Active History has provided an email template for people to use to urge the Pope to apologize to survivors, and lay out a concrete plan for how they will follow the TRC Calls to Action.
We should also call and email our Members of Parliament and Premiers and put pressure on them to lay out a plan to address the 20 remaining Calls to Action and to follow through on the other 32 currently in progress.
While apologies are nowhere enough, we can not wait for a tragic discovery to pressure these institutions to apologize, and then disappear when asked to take action. This Truth and Reconciliation day is an opportunity for us to educate ourselves on the atrocities of colonial policies and to celebrate the strength and resilience of Indigenous peoples today.
This year, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Nation who announced the 215 graves found in Kamloops are encouraging people to learn the Secwépemc Honour Song to sing at 2:15 p.m. on September 30 to mark the first Truth and Reconciliation Day.
The NCTR is also hosting a five-day national event where Every Child Matters will host historical workshops and activities to learn the truths of the residential schools system and Indigenous treaties. People are encouraged to wear an orange shirt bought from Indigenous organizations to commemorate Truth and Reconciliation Day and to learn about whose land they are on and the history of it’s Indigenous peoples.
Residential school students can seek support through the Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program by going to their website or calling them at 1-866-925-4419.