With drumming and singing, at powwows and public ceremonies, communities across the country marked the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation on Sept. 30.
The federal statutory holiday, also known as Orange Shirt Day, was established last year to remember children who died while being forced to attend residential schools, as well as those who survived, and the families and communities still affected by lasting trauma.
In Mission, Fraser River Heritage Park was a sea of orange shirts as hundreds of people turned out to listen and to reflect.
Johnny Williams of the Sq’ewlets First Nation council, led a group of drummers and spoke about the importance of this annual event.
It’s about clearing up misunderstandings about what went on at residential schools like St. Mary’s in Mission, where an investigation of unmarked graves has now begun.
“There’s still a misunderstanding about what happened in these buildings,” Williams said, adding that it was “atrocities” that still reverberate to this day.
“Every aboriginal person you see or know either went to one of these schools or is the son or grandson of a residential school survivor. It’s heartbreaking to try and fathom the stuff they went through.”
Williams didn’t attend a residential school, but grew up “being scared” of those who did because the trauma they suffered impacted how they related to other people.
The trauma has now impacted multiple generations, Williams said.
“This isn’t a story about aboriginal culture,” he said. “It’s a story about Western culture when it arrived here.”
Events of reflection were held across Canada.
The speeches and events occur even as the grim work that helped inspire the day continues.
In Mission, where Orange Shirt Day finds its origins, work began in September to search for graves with ground-penetrating radar at the former St. Mary’s Indian Residential School. The City of Mission said in a statement the work would continue as long as dry weather allows.
It was at another Mission school, St. Joseph Mission Residential School, where student Phyllis Webstad had an orange shirt, a gift from her grandmother, taken away from her in the 1970s.
Orange Shirt Day would become the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation, a federal statutory holiday established last year following the discovery of suspected unmarked burial sites at former residential schools, by the Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc nation in Kamloops, B.C., Saskatchewan’s Cowessess First Nation and others.
Assembly of First Nations National Chief RoseAnne Archibald said in an interview that the day was about residential school survivors, like Webstad, as well as the children who never returned from them.
“It’s their day, especially those who suffered in those institutions and survived and then I also feel that it’s for all the little ones who died in those institutions and didn’t make it home,” she said.
“The day is about them as well. It’s also a time to reflect. It’s a time to learn about Canada’s true history.”
She said the day was also an opportunity for Canadians to reflect on the Indigenous experience.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau joined representatives of various First Nations and dozens of people in orange for a sunrise ceremony in Niagara Falls, Ont. He stood silently as the ceremony took place and spoke with residential school survivors afterwards.
“This is a day for Indigenous Peoples. Today to recognize that yes, you are still here, you are still strong and you are an indissociable part of the present and the future we build every day as a country,” he told the crowd.
“It is a day to remember, to grieve, to take another step along healing. But it is also a day for non-Indigenous peoples to recognize that you should not have to carry this burden alone.”
– With files from the Canadian Press