It’s been an uneasy road for Canadians in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report in 2015 that offered 94 calls to action to begin to address the harms of residential schools and assimilative policy that caused severe injury to the rich and diverse mix of First Nations families, communities, and cultures here.
In the years, since, however, there have been some positive developments to promote greater healing and understanding. With cultural icons like the late Gord Downie stepping forward for reconciliation and a concerted effort within school systems to include Indigenous history in lesson plans, the awareness is improving. It has also been heartening to see recent efforts to revive traditional languages and cultures well supported.
Keeping with this theme, the heritage committee of the House of Commons has been discussing ways to create a statutory holiday that would encourage Canadians to be mindful of that devastating tradition. The efforts came with a proposal by Indigenous Saskatchewan MP Georgina Jolibois to make the annual June 21 Indigenous Peoples’ Day a statutory holiday as a way of celebrating First Nations’ culture and raising more awareness.
Members of the committee have jumped from that idea to having a separate, sombre statutory holiday on Sept. 30. That date is used to observe the legacy of residential schools is schools and some workplaces as orange shirt day, borrowed from the story of an Indigenous girl, Phyllis Webstad had her unique shirt and her other clothing taken from her at a mission school. It’s symbolic of much more that had been taken from youth attending the schools.
While that’s an important observation, one wonders if a statutory holiday is the proper way to remember and to teach future generations about the past. Will those who are as fortunate to be as close to a First Nations community as we are with the Mohawks for the Bay go to their territory to observe traditional practices and learn, or will it simply be another day to go fishing or shopping or lounge around the house and forget why it’s a holiday? That may seem like a callous observation, but Remembrance Day was once a statutory holiday and that didn’t make everyone attend cenotaph services for those who sacrificed their lives for the freedoms Canadians enjoy. Even now, on weekends, it seems much of society doesn’t take time to observe.
Perhaps, there is some value still in setting aside that one day a year as at least there will be conversation around Sept.30 that invites people to think about the issue in their own way on their own time. Maybe there would be some reminder that decades of suffering paid for that day of freedom. It would be interesting to see how the public feels and whether Indigenous peoples believe that is an appropriate way to remember their ancestors, families, and themselves. That’s conversation that needs to take place, after all, it’s their community that has been most impacted and it is one Canadians need to embrace if true reconciliation and unity is desired.
Dedicating a specific day — whether a statutory holiday or a simple observance like is currently practiced — may be a nice gesture, but that’s not where the focus should lie. Every day, Canadians should discussing and learning about all of the many cultures that make this multicultural nation what it is. Government can and should be among the many leader to facilitate and enrich those talks.