This post includes details about colonialism and residential schools which could be upsetting and triggering. If you are a residential school survivor or intergenerational survivor and need support, please call the National Residential School Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419.
NWT residents can also speak with a trained responder for free by calling the NWT Help Line at 1-800-661-0844. The NWT Help Line, which is confidential, has an option for follow-up calls.
It can start with a knock on the door one morning. It is the local “Indian agent”, or the parish priest, or, perhaps, a Mounted Police officer. The bus for residential school leaves that morning. It is a day the parents have long been dreading. Even if the children have been warned in advance, the morning’s events are still a shock. The officials have arrived, and the children must go. For tens of thousands of Indigenous children for over a century, this was the beginning of their residential schooling. They were torn from their parents, who often surrendered them only under threat of prosecution. Then, they were hurled into a strange and frightening place, one in which their parents and culture would be demeaned and oppressed.
For Phyllis (Jack) Webstad, of the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation, it started in 1973 when she was only six years old. She arrived at St. Joseph Mission (SJM) Residential School, wearing a shiny orange shirt her grandmother had bought especially for her. Phyllis’s new shirt was taken from her that day, along with the rest of her clothes. In Phyllis’s words, “The colour orange has always reminded me of that and how my feelings didn’t matter, how no one cared and how I felt like I was worth nothing.”
Orange Shirt Day, an event that takes place annually on September 30th, originated in 2013 as a result of Phyllis’ story. Has since become a symbol of solidarity, reconciliation, and understanding among Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada. It serves as a way to honour the experiences of residential school survivors and to raise awareness about the ongoing process of healing and reconciliation.
Orange Shirt Day invites Canadians to wear orange shirts on September 30th each year to honour survivors of residential schools, their families, and their communities.
September 30th is also the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. It was established to honour the survivors of the residential school system and to remember the children who did not survive.
The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation responds to Call to Action 80 from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action (TRC), which reads:
80. We call upon the federal government, in collaboration with Aboriginal peoples, 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.
When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its report in 2015 to deal with Canada’s ongoing legacy of residential schools, the Federal government stated its commitment to implement all 94 Calls to Action. However, nearly 8 years later, most of those Calls to Action haven’t been implemented (see Jewell and Mosby’s “Calls to Action Accountability” for a full accounting of the implementation of the TRC’s Calls to Action as of 2022). What can we do to push governments to hold governments accountable and support residential school survivors? To repair this relationship, everyone must take part and lead by example.
NWTRPA’s Commitment to Reconciliation and Decolonization
As a recreation organization, the NWTRPA benefits greatly from the colonial Canadian government and its claim to sovereignty. We receive funding, institutional process, and information from this system.
Following the release of the final report of TRC in 2015, the NWTRPA made a commitment to advance truth and reconciliation by working in the spirit of the TRC. Reconciliation remains one of the NWTRPA’s strategic priorities. Some of the initiatives the NWTRPA has undertaken toward its commitment to reconciliation, decolonization and racial equity are mentioned below:
In 2016, the NWTRPA Board of Directors formed a working group to explore how the organization might best engage in the 94 calls to action listed in the TRC report. At our 2016 annual general assembly, the NWTRPA membership voted to endorse the TRC Calls to Action and adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) as a framework for future activities.
The NWTRPA completed a Strategic Plan (2018-2021) with a primary goal to work with intention to advance decolonization and reconciliation through their work, workplaces, and relationships. The organization’s strategic plan included developing a program review process to guide and determine if NWTRPA program content, services, and delivery are in line with their commitment to decolonization and reconciliation. In 2018, in partnership with Dr. Crystal Gail Fraser, a Gwichyà Gwich’in historian at the University of Alberta, the NWTRPA initiated a research project called “How I Survived”: Recreation at Northern Residential Schools. The purpose of the project is to gather stories from survivors in order to document and understand how recreation was a part of the residential school, hostel, and day school experience, as well as the significance of recreation for students. This project is guided by an advisory committee of survivors and intergenerational survivors.
The number one goal in the NWTRPA’s 2023-26 Strategic Plan is decolonization, reconciliation, and racial equity: Continue to transform the NWTRPA through a commitment to decolonization, reconciliation, and racial equity.
The NWTRPA Board of Directors approved a Racial Equity Plan, a diversity statement for job descriptions, and reviewed and updated the Human Resources Parameters policy with a racial equity lens.
To learn more about what the NWTRPA is doing to meet its commitment to reconciliation, decolonization, and racial equity, visit our website at nwtrpa.org/anti-racism.
Use this day as a time for reflection:
If we truly want to honour those impacted by the Indian residential school system, including Survivors, Intergenerational Survivors, and those children who never returned home, if we truly want to advance reconciliation, we must implement the 94 Calls to Action, we must implement the 231 Calls for Justice, and we must honour the treaties.
This requires action from all levels of government, the churches, and all sectors, including education, healthcare, justice, and recreation. As a starting point, contact information for members of the federal parliament is here and for members of the NWT’s legislative assembly is here.
The NWTRPA offices will be closed on Monday, October 2nd, 2023, to honour the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.