'Let's not lose the reason for doing this day': Indigenous leader reminds Canadians that reconciliation is ongoing

"Reconciliation is ongoing and it will take a long time to achieve it if we ever do," said Kanienʼkehá꞉ka (Mohawk) elder and activist Kenneth Deer, reflecting on the first National Day of Truth and Reconciliation.

With 10s of thousands of people across the country of all ages putting on orange shirts to honour residential school victims and survivors on Sept. 30, Deer is hoping that actions responding to Canada's genocidal practice is more than just a day.

"It's a good start," said Deer. "Let's not lose the reason for doing this day. What I'm concerned about is it's just going to be another holiday and people will take long weekends like the prime minister of Canada."

Deer is a board member at the Foundation for Genocide Education that works to make genocide studies part of school curriculum at all levels.

"It's an important part of history, and if you don't teach it so people understand what it is, it may repeat itself," he said.

The foundation creates templates and resources for educators of all levels to teach genocides from the Holocaust to the Armenian genocide to the residential school program. Foundation founder Heidi Berger said educators and all levels of government have been positive about expanding genocide education in schools.

"In fact, the Education Ministry insisted on including the genocide of the First Peoples in the first edition of the guide on teaching genocide at the very first meeting of the committee responsible for the guide, on which we sit as consultants, back in 2016, and it has consulted with First Nations representatives to review and approve the final section on the genocide, which includes a history of the residential schools," she said.

Seeing so many Indigenous and non-Indigenous students wear orange and have some knowledge of the system is a far cry from Deer's experience at day school in his community of Kahnawake.

"It's like night and day," he said. "The day school systems were run by the government here in our communities and they had the same curriculum and same objectives as the residential schools except that we went home at night. We still weren't allowed to speak the language and still weren't allowed to learn our culture."

Deer is not a Kanien'kéha (Mohawk language) speaker - though his parents were - as a result of his education and it's something that has had a profound effect on him.

"An elder once told me a long time ago, 'Kenneth, you're an incomplete person,'" he said.

After initial hurt feelings, Deer later realized what the elder meant when she said that.

"Because I don't know the language, I can't pick up the nuances of our teachings," he said. "I can't run ceremonies and can't speak to my elders in the language and really learn substantially the deepness and richness of our culture." 

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