The First National Day for Truth and Reconciliation
This year marks the first ever National Day for Truth and Reconciliation; a federal statutory holiday that has not been recognized provincially. This day is also often called “Orange Shirt Day.”
If you Google “What is orange shirt day?" you may come to a website addressing “Residential Schools." Thus, begins the erasure of the truth. These institutions were neither residences, in the sense of homes, nor schools, in the sense of child learning and development. Of course children did learn, but through their resistance, objection and abhorrence to violence, not through conditions resembling any kind of respect for children or their development. The term “residential schools” is a euphemism to hide what in other contexts might be called “prison camps for children," specifically Indigenous children.
In universities we study subjects such as ethics, child development, health and well-being. We study pedagogy, psychology, history, politics and sociology. We study violence and genocide. However, we have tended to assign the gravitas of an idea like genocide to events that happen at a distance, such as Nazi Germany, Rwanda, or Bosnia-Herzegovina. We express horror at mass graves elsewhere in the world. The First Peoples of this land, known by some as Turtle Island and by others, as Canada, have seldom been afforded respect or acknowledgement of the genocide they experienced. This is slowly changing, but not without resistance from those who feel their conception of Canada threatened by this reality, or who are afraid of the accountability that it demands.
Against this backdrop of purposeful forgetting, how do we acknowledge the Indigenous children, all across the land, who died, and who were sometimes murdered, by those representatives of the dominant culture charged with their care? Without carrying forward this more fulsome understanding of a real and accurate history of colonial violence, it is impossible to make sense of these deaths, and why those children were there in the first place. These children were harmed, or killed, by priests, nuns, teachers, school staff, Indian agents and RCMP, those who were emboldened by legislation and the Canadian government. To date, justice has not been served and no individuals have stepped forward with accountability for these deaths.
Reconciliation may not be the best metaphor, or the most appropriate place to begin. In the aftermath of genocides and atrocities around the world, scholars and practitioners have, for decades, debated the balance between truth and justice, between reconciliation and reparation. Reconciliation has been a controversial concept since its popularization, in that it has often foregrounded healing a society before providing truth, justice or restitution. Increasingly, reconciliation projects globally go hand in hand with development projects, due to the recognition that healing cannot happen where people still suffer and struggle. In Canada, truth and reconciliation has meant the sharing of terrible memories, some reparations payments, and the creation of national holidays, but also the negligence of most of the 94 calls to action outlined by the TRC itself, that would materially improve the lives of Indigenous people.
Truth and reconciliation has also allowed us to talk about these crimes as though they are history, and to ignore their connections to the contemporary emergencies where our government and society continue to fail Indigenous people: how can you reconcile when you have no clean drinking water? How can you reconcile when you don’t have your land? How can you reconcile when your women and girls are continually disappearing and being murdered? How can you reconcile when you are dying in hospitals while being mocked by the medical staff who are supposed to help you? How can you reconcile when your children are still buried in unmarked graves, where they died and remain alone, far from their homes and families?
Reconciliation has been about Indigenous peoples, more than for them. Indigenous people have nothing to reconcile, except maybe to make meaning of why they were treated so badly, why their lands were taken and how to move forward in the aftermath and continuation of so much tragedy, pain and suffering. Reconciliation has not been accompanied by decolonization. As we mark this first national holiday, we also argue that these symbolic gestures must be accompanied by concrete work to undo the colonial structures that caused this harm, starting with a real commitment to enacting the 94 calls to action outlined by the Truth and Reconciliation Final Report, which connect the past to the present, truth to justice, and history to policy.
So to those children, as we feel them as the sinking of our chest, as the water in our eyes, as the ones who will have no justice, we remember you, we honour you. We hope that your lives will not be in vain. We feel for your parents, for your loved ones. And we wish we could tell you it will never happen again, that everything is better now. Sadly, we cannot yet do that. But today many people wear bright orange shirts as almost fluorescent reminders that you too had a spirit, a family, a culture, and that they are living on against all odds.
In First Peoples Studies and the School of Community and Public Affairs, we also try to keep alive the truth and the promise that students may create a just world and replace the structures that do violence and undermine humanity. We believe that our teaching and our learning and our work together should speak truth to power. On this National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, we stand in solidarity with Indigenous Peoples and we mourn their children together.
- Catherine Kinewesquao Richardson, Director, First Peoples Studies
- Anna Sheftel, Principal, School of Community and Public Affairs
- Elsa Beaulieu Bastien, Part-time Faculty, School of Community and Public Affairs
- Chedly Belkhodja, Professor, School of Community and Public Affairs
- Colin Berube, Part-time Faculty, School of Community and Public Affairs
- Perry Calce, Coordinator Academic Programs and Curriculum Development, School of Community and Public Affairs
- Elizabeth Fast, Associate Professor, First Peoples Studies and Applied Human Sciences
- Peter Graham, Part-time Faculty, School of Community and Public Affairs
- Anna Kruzynski, Professor, School of Community and Public Affairs
- Aditya Kuman Dewar, Part-time Faculty, School of Community and Public Affairs
- Emanuel Lowi, Part-time Faculty, First Peoples Studies
- Norman Nawrocki, Part-time Faculty, School of Community and Public Affairs
- Lorraine O’Donnell, Affiliate Assistant Professor, School of Community and Public Affairs
- Jason Prince, Part-time Faculty, School of Community and Public Affairs
- Bimadoshka Pucan, Assistant Professor, First Peoples Studies and History
- Nicolas Renaud, Assistant Professor, First Peoples Studies
- Koby Rogers Hall, Part-time Faculty, School of Community and Public Affairs and Theatre
- Daniel Salée, Professor, School of Community and Public Affairs
- Luba Serge, Part-time Faculty, School of Community and Public Affairs
- Sigwan Thivierge, Assistant Professor, First Peoples Studies and Linguistics
- Louellyn White, Associate Professor, First Peoples Studies
- Cheolki Yoon, Part-time Faculty, School of Community and Public Affairs