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National Day for Truth and Reconciliation

Saturday, September 30th, will mark the third National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. First recognized across the country in 2021 with orange t-shirts, flags, and other clothing items, many of which read “Every Child Matters,” as an acknowledgement of the genocide which took place in these government-funded residential schools, half of which were operated by the Catholic church.  

Orange Shirt Day, now coupled with the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation, was first a grass-roots creation to raise awareness of the lasting impacts of residential schools. Orange garments symbolize Indigenous people, particularly children, being stripped of their culture and identity as Indigenous people. 

The National Day of Truth and Reconciliation was first suggested to be made a federal holiday by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which published a call to action in June 2015. First published with 92 calls to action, the TRC travelled across Canada between 2007 and 2015, collecting firsthand accounts of the damages wrought by Canadian residential schools. Over those six years, the Committee heard from more than 6,500 witnesses and survivors of residential schools. 

While the federal government supplied funding for this study, there has been slow action in fulfilling the TRC demands. The first National Day of Truth and Reconciliation was not created until the unmarked graves of 215 children were discovered in Kamloops, British Columbia, outside of a former residential school in May of 2021.  

The discovery made international headlines and was the first of many unmarked cemeteries near former residential schools. With the use of ground penetrating radars, nearly 2,000 unmarked graves have been discovered near residential school sites in Canada since 2021. 

Despite the TRC stating there needed to be a day of acknowledgement for the atrocities of residential schools, it was not until the initial discovery of these sites that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau chose to create a National Day of Remembrance. For many Canadians, the reality of residential schools and the child causalities buried in secret was shocking. The history of residential schools in Canada is old, but few knew the extent of the damage residential schools had caused. 

According to the TRC, at least 4,100 students went missing or died while attending residential schools. Former TRC Chair Murray Sinclair has asserted at least 6,000 students died while attending residential schools. From the 1870s to 1997, when the last residential school was shut down in what became Nunavut, at least 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend. 

One hundred thirty-nine residential schools operated in Canada, all of which were government-funded. The stated purpose of these institutions was to isolate children from their communities and culture in order to assimilate children into a more European culture. In 1920, then Head of Indian Affairs Duncan Campbell Scott infamously stated, “The goal of the Indian Residential School is to kill the Indian in the child.”  

Scott’s sentiments were common at the time. Since European arrival, First Nation and Indigenous people were seen as obstacles to the Eurocentric construction of Canadian society. Indigenous people held their forms of government, trade networks, and spiritual practices, which settlers determined to be uncivilized. So far as settlers could tell, Indigenous people were to be either killed or assimilated to Western ideals of finances, property ownership, and faith in one true God. 

Residential schools appeared as a direct answer to this. The first residential school in this part of the world was opened as early as 1831 in Brantford, Ontario, 36 years before the Canadian Confederation. Called The Mohawk Institute, it began as a school for boys in 1828 but was transformed into an institution meant to indoctrinate Indigenous children into European ways of life. 

According to the official website of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, by the time the school closed in 1970, 48 students attending this school died there. 

In 1894, amendments were made to the Indian Act, which stated the government was authorized to remove Indigenous children from their homes and place them into residential schools if it was determined the child was not properly cared for at home. What determined an unfit home was left to the government’s discretion, which wanted all children in the newly established nation of Canada to be English-speaking Catholics or Christians.  

By 1920, amendments were made which made attendance by First Nations students a legal obligation, wherein attendance at Day Schools, a similar concept, was already a legal requirement. Children were forcibly removed from their homes at four years old and were sometimes kept at the schools for the entire time they attended until they were 16.  

Any family known to have a child within this age range would have the child taken from them and sent to the nearest residential school. It was not uncommon for families to keep their children a secret from the federal government and hide them from the RCMP, who came to take them. Parents who kept their children from attending residential schools could be fined or even arrested on child endangerment charges. 

What Happened in Canadian Residential Schools 

The atrocities of the Canadian residential school system shocked many, as such a crime seems too abhorrent to have taken place here. Through the megaphone of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, thousands of Canadians were able to finally speak their truth of what they endured in residential schools. 

Often housed in overcrowded, poorly constructed buildings, students were treated like inmates. The rules were strict, and the nuns and priests in the schools were cruel and unforgiving. Boys were not allowed to speak with girls -including siblings- in these schools, nor was anyone allowed to talk about home or any aspects of their culture. 

Children were forbidden from speaking the languages they spoke at home, often the only language they knew. The consequence for speaking Indigenous languages was often violent, as were the consequences of many other infractions deemed punishable by the clergy members who operated the schools. Many survivors have recounted being beaten mercilessly by nuns who would often wield a strap. Young girls who broke one of the many rules might have their heads shaved to shame them, while other times, food and water might be withheld to punish a child. 

Countless stories involve children who tried to escape and died from exposure to the harsh elements of the wilderness. One particularly famous story is of Chanie Wenjack, who, at 12 years old, died from hunger and exposure after escaping a residential school near Kenora in 1966. His death stirred a national inquisition into how children were being treated in Canadian residential schools. Chanie, who was called Charlie, became a symbolic figure in the resistance to Canadian colonialism in the 1970’s. 

His story is one of tens of thousands wherein children were forced to experience genocidal and hateful practices forced upon them by the Canadian government and the Catholic church. Children experienced daily abuse and thousands of instances of sexual assault. An estimated 5,000 people committed sex crimes against children in Canadian residential schools, though less than 50 have faced legal repercussions. 

For the children who lived these horrors and for those who did not survive, we as a nation must face these truths. 

– Matthew Harrison, U Multicultural

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