This post includes details about colonialism and residential schools and could be upsetting. If you are a residential school survivor or intergenerational survivor and are in need of 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.
In 2013, former students of the St. Joseph Mission Residential School (1891-1981) and their families, which included members of the Secwepemc, Tsilhqot’in, Southern Dakelh, and St’at’imc Nations, came together in Williams Lake, BC, for a reunion and commemoration project. The gathering was “designed to commemorate the residential school experience, to witness and honour the healing journey of the survivors and their families, and to commit to the ongoing process of reconciliation.”
During the event, Phyllis (Jack) Webstad, of the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation, shared the story of her first day at residential school. She was only six years old when she arrived to St. Joseph’s, 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 color 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, celebrated annually on September 30, is a legacy of this Survivor-led event. The date was deliberately chosen by Survivors because “it is the time of year in which children were taken from their homes to residential schools, and because it is an opportunity to set the stage for anti-racism and anti-bullying policies for the coming school year.” On Orange Shirt Day, Canadians are urged to wear orange shirts to honour Survivors of residential schools, their families, and their communities, but as importantly to “to listen with open ears to the stories of survivors and their families, and to remember those that didn’t make it.”
Beginning this year, September 30 will also be a statutory holiday (for federally regulated workers in the public and private sectors). The Government of Canada is calling the newly designated National Day for Truth and Reconciliation “an opportunity to recognize and commemorate the tragic history and ongoing legacy of residential schools, and to honour their survivors, their families and communities.”
With this legislation, the government is finally fulfilling the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action 80, which states:
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.
Over five years, the TRC collected more than 6,750 statements from Survivors and others impacted by the Indian residential school system. From these testimonies, the commissioners issued 94 Calls to Action that seek “to redress the deep, residual cultural and psychological damage of residential schools” and “to advance the process of reconciliation in Canada between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.”
It is important to note that the designation of September 30 as the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is only the ninth completed action of the 94 Calls to Action since 2015. (See Jewell and Mosby’s “Calls to Action Accountability” for a full accounting of the implementation of the TRC’s Calls to Action to date).
The Government of the Northwest Territories has similarly declared September 30 a holiday for the territory’s public service, though until the NWT Employment Standards Act is amended, it is not a statutory holiday for all employees in the NWT. Not all provinces and territories have chosen to recognize the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
The NWT Recreation and Parks Association (NWTRPA) offices will be closed on Thursday, September 30, to honour the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. The NWTRPA Board of Directors passed a motion in August to recognize the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation and make September 30 a statutory holiday for staff. In their discussions, the Board of Directors stressed the importance of continuing to learn about the history and legacy of residential schools, and reaffirmed the organization’s commitment to advancing reconciliation, not just on this day, but throughout the year.
To learn more about the history and legacy of residential school in the NWT, you can read/watch the following:
Fatty Legs by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton
A Stranger at Home by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton
The Journey Forward by Richard Van Camp and Monique Gray Smith
Porcupines and China Dolls by Robert Arthur Alexie
Paying the Land by Joe Sacco
Survivors Speak and Canada’s Residential Schools: The Inuit and Northern Experience by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada
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 federal parliament is here and for members of the NWT’s legislative assembly is here.