This year, Orange Shirt Day coincided with the first-ever National Day for Truth and Reconciliation — a new statutory holiday approved by Parliament in June, just days after 215 unmarked graves were discovered at a former residential school site in Kamloops, B.C.
However, being labelled as a holiday shouldn’t mean it’s just another day off.
Rather, Sept. 30 should be a time dedicated to reflecting on the ongoing legacies of the residential school system and cultural genocide of Indigenous peoples in Canada.
As a white settler, I made it a priority of mine to do at least one meaningful thing on Sept. 30, so I started by reading the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action and discovered just how far we’ve yet to go as a country hoping to heal from its past.
The commission was created in 2008 to facilitate the process of reconciliation by tasking all levels of government with resolving conflicts caused by the residential school system and other harmful colonial policies.
I first heard about the TRC in my second year of university when I enrolled in an Indigenous History course at the U of S and, to be honest, I haven’t thought much about it until recently.
I wondered how I had anything to do with Indigenous affairs and the government’s means of addressing them.
But then I discovered how the Calls to Action are not just directed towards government agencies and other institutions — they are also directed towards individuals such as myself. And if reconciliation is something I hope to work towards, then reading the Calls to Action seemed like a good start.
National Day for Truth and Reconciliation came in response to one of the 94 Calls to Action — the establishment of a statutory holiday to honour survivors, their families and communities — and it couldn’t have come at a more needed time as the remains of children continue to be found at former residential school sites across the country.
However, it’s important that non-Indigenous people, including myself, do their individual part to work towards reconciliation everyday, not just once a year. And while wearing an orange shirt on Sept. 30 demonstrates our commitment to reconciliation, we must recognize that symbolic gestures alone will not make a difference.
Orange Shirt Day relates to the experience of Phyllis Webstad, whose clothing — including an orange shirt given to her by her grandmother — was stripped away from her on the first day she attended St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School in Williams Lake, B.C. at the age of six.
Phyllis’ orange shirt has become a symbol of the many losses experienced by Indigenous children who were sent to residential schools, including the loss of their languages, cultures and freedoms.
Although Orange Shirt Day has been in observance since 2013, the newly-created National Day for Truth and Reconciliation reinforces the importance of recognizing the history and legacy of residential schools nationwide.
An estimated 150,000 First Nation, Inuit and Métis children attended residential schools in what was an attempt by the federal government and Christian churches to assimilate Indigenous youth into Canadian society.
It wasn’t until 1996, just 25 years ago, when the last residential school closed in Saskatchewan. Since then, many survivors have shared their stories and recount experiencing physical, emotional, sexual and psychological abuse at the hands of the nuns and priests who ran the schools.
It’s not hard to believe, then, that many of the children who attended these schools never returned home. In fact, the TRC confirmed the deaths of over 4,000 children who attended residential schools through its Missing Child Project years before any ground searches were officially conducted.
But with the recent discovery of unmarked graves, there lies tangible evidence of the atrocities that took place — artifacts of genocide that confirm what many Indigenous peoples have known all along.
Only 14 of the 94 Calls to Action have been implemented as of June 30, 2021 and many proponents of reconciliation in Canada, including commissioners themselves, have argued that the Canadian government has been too slow to respond.
That’s why it is necessary for settlers to stand in solidarity with Indigenous peoples and commit to the lifelong process of reconciliation by listening to, and remembering, the stories of residential school survivors.
If there is one thing I learned this Sept. 30, it was that I can do more as a non-Indigenous person to work towards reconciliation — not just once a year, but in my everyday life. Because, having just one day to reflect on over a hundred years of genocide is simply not enough.
This op-ed was written by a University of Saskatchewan undergraduate student and reflects the views and opinions of the writer. If you would like to write a reply, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. Jakob is a third-year undergraduate student studying physiology and pharmacology, and the staff writer at The Sheaf Publishing Society.