Attorney Alaina Woolfrey and Professor Brenda Macdougal speak about residential schools and recognizing Canada’s violent colonial history on country’s first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation
Sept. 30, marks the country’s first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. Evolved from Orange Shirt Day, this federal statutory holiday intends to honour the lost children and survivors of the residential school system in Canada, their families and their communities.
As of this year, the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is recognized as a federal statutory holiday, but is not being recognized as a statutory holiday in the province of Ontario.
On June 3, 2021, Bill C-5 received royal assent. The bill contained a set of amendments designed to establish a new holiday on Sept. 30.
Some groups have criticized Doug Ford’s government for failing to recognize the holiday in a more significant fashion, as other provinces have. British Columbia has marked Sept. 30, as a day of commemoration, and the Northwest Territories has ordered a full holiday for the territory’s public service. One such critic is Chief Mark B. Hill of the Six Nations of Grand River, who wrote an open letter to Premier Ford advocating for a fuller commemoration of the holiday.
Brenda Macdougall, the academic delegate for Indigenous engagement at the Indigenous Resource Centre (IRC) and a professor in the faculty of arts here at the U of O, doesn’t think that the current provincial model for recognizing the holiday is necessarily a bad thing.
“One of the principles of that day is to pause and reflect and commemorate, so maybe having educational institutions like universities or all schools open means that we have a chance to have those conversations with the student body in ways that we wouldn’t if it was a day off. And if it’s a day off, are people actually doing what the intention is of those days?” asked Macdougall in an interview with the Fulcrum .
Macdougall likens the treatment of the new holiday to the treatment of Remembrance Day.
“[An] email went out asking professors to be aware of the day to encourage educational activities around the day, and moreover, to not schedule anything significant on that day so that students could take part in events,” Macdougall said.
The U of O, will be hosting a number of events to commemorate the day, including Orange Shirt events held by the Indigenous Students Association (ISA) and an online webinar featuring Phil Fontaine, formerly the Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations.
Macdougall sees this as a positive addition to initiatives that have already been undertaken year-round since the establishment of the Indigenous Action Plan (IAP) in 2017. These have included events like the friendship ceremony with the Algonquin Nation which marked the beginning of the academic year this fall.
Macdougall does expect the holiday to be marked differently in years to come.
Alaina Woolfrey, a lawyer at Nelligan O’Brien Payne LLP, notes the role of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report issued in 2015 which called upon the government to establish a national statutory holiday.
“There were 94 calls to action within that report, and they were primarily focused on a recognition of the truth behind what [has] happened within Canada, particularly as it relates to residential schools, the Sixties Scoop treatment, [and the] past and present [treatment] of Indigenous persons and also an aim … to hopefully move forward,” said Woolfrey in an interview.
Woolfrey, whose grandfather is a Mi’kmaq, described the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation as a day of great importance to her and her family.
“Anything that pushes the envelope forward in recognizing [Indigenous] history is very important to me,” she said.
Overall, Woolfrey expressed mixed feelings about the way the federal government has handled the discovery of the remains of children at former residential schools, but she was encouraged by the public’s response.
“I think that the most positive handling of what [has] happened was not from Canada, It was from Canadians,” said Woolfrey. “People would ask me questions or they would tell me that this sparked in them a need to learn more and educate themselves more.”