Canada marks first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation

Thursday marks Canada’s first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, as communities across the country honour Indigenous survivors and children who disappeared from the residential school system.

The new statutory holiday, which the federal government announced in June, asks the country to reflect on Canada’s history of mistreatment of Indigenous people and the lasting intergenerational trauma of the church-run institutions where children were torn from their families and abused.

Creating a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation was one of the 94 calls to action by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) back in 2015.

The last residential school in Canada closed in 1996, with more than 150,000 First Nations, Metis and Inuit children forced to attend the facilities between the 1870s and 1996, according to the TRC.

The facilities were designed to strip Indigenous people of their culture and language, and replace them with a Christian faith and the English language. There were 139 residential schools in the federally funded program, many of which were run by the Catholic Church.

The TRC's final report estimates that 6,000 children died while attending the schools, although many say the number could be as high as 15,000.

Despite the marking of Sept. 30 as a federal holiday, several provinces, including Alberta, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario, have chosen not to recognize it, meaning that schools and provincial offices in these provinces remained open.

HONOURING VICTIMS, SURVIVORS

Singing and drumming rang out this afternoon from Kamloops, B.C., where the Tk'emlups te Secwepemc Nation announced in May that ground-penetrating radar had detected at least 215 unmarked graves at the site of one of Canada's largest former residential schools.

At Cowessess First Nation in southern Saskatchewan, where 751 unmarked graves at the site of the former Marieval Residential School were discovered in June, leaders held a community feast and powwow on the grounds of the facility to mark the holiday.

Survivors shared stories while dancers offered their strength and healing.

Ivy Lynn Bear, who attended the Marieval Residential School for four months in Grade 3, recalled the painful memories of comforting her youngest sister at night, until she was barred from doing so.

“I was hearing her at night crying ‘Mommy, Mommy,’ and on one particular night I saw one of the nuns come and take her away to another room, thinking that the nun was supporting her and consoling her,” she told CTV National News. “I had no idea she was abusing her." 

Cowessess First Nation Chief Cadmus Delorme said the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is an important step for Canadians to better understand the pain and trauma many Indigenous people went through at these facilities.

Speaking during Thursday's ceremony, Delorme told those who gathered at Cowessess that the day is an emotional one. Delorme acknowledged that Canadians want to stand with Indigenous people in recognizing the harm experienced at residential schools.

"You're putting your shield down and you're starting to admit that you really don't know much about the true history between Cowesses and Indigenous people and all of Canada," he said.

"We gather here today to have a better understanding," he added.

Delorme said getting to reconciliation will not take one day, but rather "one day at a time."

"The truth is hard to accept, even as Indigenous people, the truth is even hard for us to reimagine it because we try to bury it in a way. But we cannot move to reconciliation until we accept the truth," he said.

Delorme previously told CTV News that work to identify those children buried on the site continues, but they have already been able to identify about 300 of them and markers will be made in the near future.

Numerous other Indigenous communities have since reported finding unmarked graves at former residential school sites with the same technology used in Kamloops and Cowessess, prompting calls for justice that have resonated beyond Canada's border.

The statutory holiday coincides with Orange Shirt Day, which was started in 2013 as a way to honour Indigenous children and educate Canadians about the impact the residential school system had on Indigenous communities. It was inspired by the experiences of Phyllis Webstad, a Northern Secwpemc from the Stswecem'c Xgat'tem First Nation, who had her new orange shirt taken away by residential school staff on her first day of school.

Across the country, countless gatherings and marches and online events occurred.

Crowds in orange shirts gathered on Parliament Hill Thursday morning, to hear from elders and Indigenous leaders on the horrors of residential schools, and to honour the lost children and survivors.

Event organizer Jenny Sutherland said the day was to be about peace and was not a day for protest.

"The nation is finally awakening to our story," Sutherland told the crowd, which continued to grow over two hours of speeches, songs and prayers.

"I could feel you. I can feel you feeling us, finally, our anguish, our pleas.”

Alan Harrington and his son were among those who walked from Parliament Hill on Thursday. His parents attended residential school.

“The amount of people that came out together shows that Canadians listen and need to change,” Harrington said.

In Winnipeg, a huge crowd gathered for their own healing walk.

Ann Rundle, part of that crowd, told CTV News that she was honouring the survivors of residential schools.

“I’m here today with my girlfriend walking for both of my parents and all of the survivors,” she said. “All the children that didn’t make it home and all the children that we’re still waiting for to come home.”

In Nova Scotia, residential school survivor Shirley Christmas shared her story alongside other survivors.

“We tried to heal ourselves,” she said. “I try my best to heal myself, but I’m struggling. Since the residential school, I’ve been struggling my whole life. I’m struggling to find out where I belong.”

And there was a sea of orange in Montreal, despite the province’s decision not to mark the day as a statutory holiday, with Premier Francois Legault explaining Thursday to the outrage of many that he did not make it a holiday because they “need more productivity in Quebec.”

“My dad was in residential school,” Malcom Weistche, a Montreal resident, told CTV News. “And I hope people wake up and see the pain and trauma they caused First Nations in Canada.” 

Chief Reginald Niganobe of Anishinabek Nation in Ontario told CTV News Channel that the holiday is a step in the "right direction" in acknowledging to learn and make efforts to "undo the colonial systems and legacy of residential schools and the Indian Act."

"Both these institutions go hand-in-hand and continue this date, which are the cause of inequalities that are knowingly imposed on Indigenous First Nations people," Niganobe said Thursday.

The Indian Act was introduced in 1876 and was used by the Canadian government to administer Indian status, local First Nations governments and the management of reserve land. Under the Indian Act, Indigenous people were forced to attend residential schools, with the RCMP playing a major role in what survivors call kidnappings.

To mark National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, Niganobe said, Canadians should familiarize themselves with the TRC's final report, as well as educate themselves on Canada's colonial legacy from the perspective of Indigenous authors, speakers and elders within their communities.

"I hope this leads to a greater understanding of inequalities that First Nations people face and have always faced and continue to face to this date," he said. "An education on a lot of this will probably help us move forward as a nation."

LEADERS RECOGNIZE DAY TO REFLECT

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took to Twitter early Thursday, noting that the holiday should be a day for reflection to honour residential schools survivors, their families, and those children who never returned home.

He also reaffirmed his government's commitment to "advancing reconciliation in concrete ways."

"Together, we must continue to learn about residential schools and the intergenerational trauma they have caused. It is only by facing these truths and righting these wrongs that we, in partnership with Indigenous peoples, can move toward a better future," Trudeau said in a tweet.

The Queen issued a statement to mark the holiday, acknowledging that Canada's history in regards to its treatment of Indigenous people is "painful."

"I join with all Canadians on this first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation to reflect on the painful history that Indigenous peoples endured in residential schools in Canada, and on the work that remains to heal and to continue to build an inclusive society," she said.

In a joint statement from Indigenous Services Canada, several federal ministers called residential schools a "shameful part of damaging racist and colonial policies" and acknowledged that the government has "more work to do" in addressing the calls to action outlined by the TRC.

"All Canadians have the opportunity to come together to ensure that we commemorate the history and recognize the harmful legacy of residential schools, and that this remains an essential part of reconciliation. It is a time for reflection and a commitment to reconciliation and to continuing the work ahead," the statement read.

Gov. Gen. Mary Simon, the first Indigenous person to take on the role, said in a statement that the holiday is a poignant one for her as the child of a white father and an Inuk mother.

While she was not allowed to attend residential schools, Simon said, her community "felt the sorrow" of those children who were taken from their families.

"I stayed behind, home-schooled, and visited families where there was a palpable void. I was a stand-in, a well-loved substitute, for mothers and fathers who desperately missed their children," Simon said in the statement.

Simon said Canada's legacy of colonization is "hard to accept," but necessary to address as the country works towards reconciliation.

"Reconciliation is a way of life, continuous, with no end date. It is learning from our lived experiences and understanding one another. It is creating the necessary space for us to heal. It is planting seeds of hope and respect so that our garden blooms for our children," Simon said.

"As we strive to acknowledge the horrors of the past, the suffering inflicted on Indigenous peoples, let us all stand side-by-side with grace and humility, and work together to build a better future for all."

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole issued a statement on Facebook, encouraging Canadians to take part in public commemoration, education, and conversations about the "painful and lasting impacts of residential schools" on Sept. 30.

"This is a heartbreaking reminder of the pain Indigenous children, their families, and their communities were subjected to through residential schools, and that more work needs to be done to address the devastating and harmful effects," O'Toole said in part. "In order for Canada to reach its full potential as a nation, reconciliation must be central to these efforts."

SURVIVORS SHARE THEIR STORIES

Chief Harvey McLeod of the Upper Nicola Band told CTV News Channel that he never expected there would be a day set aside for Canadians to hopefully take a moment and reflect on the damage residential schools caused.

"I couldn't have imagined that a day like this would come," McLeod said Thursday.

"But to have a day just reflecting on the relationship that this country had with First Nations people... I think it's a really, really good start. It's difficult, but it's a start."

As a residential school survivor, McLeod said he thought he would always be looked upon and treated like how he was by the priests and other staff at the school.

"It isolated me, made me a person that trusted no one but myself," he said. "It's a life that I wouldn't want any other person to endure."

On the eve of Canada's first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, several survivors spoke to a crowd of hundreds on Parliament Hill to discuss the terrors they experienced in the residential school system.

Inuk elder Levina Brown said survivors of residential schools were made to feel that they were "not good enough."

"As a nation we can change our story, to my fellow survivors I want you to know I love you," Brown said.

Jimmy Durocher, a Metis man and residential school survivor from Ile-a-la-Crosse, Sask., said that for him, the new holiday is only the beginning.

"It is my hope that in 100 years from now, our future generations will identify this date as a milestone in healing the nation and bringing us closer to reconciliation," Durocher said.

With files from The Canadian Press, CTV National News reporter Creeson Agecoutay, and CTVNews.ca writers Ben Cousins and Alexandra Mae Jones

----------

If you are a former residential school student in distress, or have been affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419

Additional mental-health support and resources for Indigenous people are available here.