With the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation approaching on September 30th, 2021, it is important to understand the meaning behind the day and its importance in the reconciliation process. It is critically important for all Canadians to listen to Survivors, their families, communities and others affected by the residential school system and educate Canadians about their experiences. The following information is intended to start the education process and encourage you to continue the conversation.
‘Indigenous peoples’ is a collective name for the original peoples of North America and their descendants. The Canadian Constitution recognizes three groups of Indigenous peoples: First Nations, Inuit, and Métis. These are three distinct peoples with unique histories, languages, cultural practices and spiritual beliefs.
‘First Nations people’ includes Registered Indians (also called Status Indians) and Non-Status Indians. Registered Indians are individuals registered as Indians under the Indian Act. There are 640 recognized First Nation communities in Canada, which represent more than 50 Nations and 50 Indigenous languages.
‘Inuit’ are the Indigenous people of the Arctic. The majority (73%) of Inuit live in Inuit Nunangat, which means “the homeland” and represents a third of Canada’s land mass and 50% of its coastline. Inuit Nunangat comprises 51 communities across four regions: Inuvialuit Settlement Region (Northwest Territories and Yukon), Nunavut, Nunavik (northern Quebec), and Nunatsiavut (Labrador).
‘Métis’ is used to describe communities of mixed European and Indigenous descent across Western Canada. Distinct Métis communities developed along the routes of the fur trade and across the Northwest within the Métis Nation Homeland. This Homeland includes the three Prairie Provinces (Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta), as well as parts of Ontario, British Columbia, the Northwest Territories and the Northern United States.
A Brief History of Colonization in Canada
Before the arrival of European explorers and traders, Indigenous Peoples were organized into complex, self-governing nations throughout what is now called North America. In its early days, the relationship between European traders and Indigenous Peoples was mutually beneficial. Indigenous Peoples were able to help traders adjust to the new land and could share their knowledge and expertise. In return, the traders offered useful materials and goods, such as horses, guns, metal knives, and kettles to the Indigenous Peoples. Colonizers used their numbers, laws, policies, and powers to gain control of Indigenous Peoples, thus leading Indigenous Peoples to be dependent on colonizers.
First introduced in 1876, the Indian Act subsumed a number of colonial laws that aimed to eliminate First Nations culture in favour of assimilation into Euro-Canadian society. It is the primary law the federal government uses to administer Indian status, local First Nations governments and the management of reserve land. It also outlines governmental obligations to First Nations peoples.
Residential Schools in Canada
For a period of more than 150 years, First Nations, Inuit and Métis Nation children were taken from their families and communities to attend schools which were often located far from their homes. More than 150,000 children attended Indian Residential Schools. Many never returned.
The first church-run Indian Residential School was opened in 1831. By the 1880s, the federal government had adopted an official policy of funding residential schools across Canada. The explicit intent was to separate these children from their families and cultures. In 1920, the Indian Act made attendance at Indian Residential Schools compulsory for Treaty-status children between the ages of 7 and 15. The last school closed in 1996.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) concluded that Residential Schools were “a systematic, government- sponsored attempt to destroy Aboriginal cultures and languages and to assimilate Aboriginal peoples so that they no longer existed as distinct peoples.”
The schools were often underfunded and overcrowded. The quality of education was substandard. Children were harshly punished for speaking their own languages. Staff were not held accountable for how they treated the children. The system forcibly separated children from their families for extended periods of time and forbade them to acknowledge their Indigenous heritage and culture or speak their own language. Children experienced horrific physical, sexual, emotional, and psychological abuse. These abuses, along with overcrowding, poor sanitation, and severely inadequate food and health care, resulted in a shockingly high death toll.
National Day for Truth and Reconciliation
The Government of Canada recently passed legislation to make September 30th a federal statutory holiday called the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
The purpose of this day is to provide an opportunity to recognize and commemorate the tragic history and ongoing legacy of residential schools, and to honour their survivors, their families and communities.
Starting this September 30th, 2021, the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation will become a designated paid holiday for federally regulated workers in the public and private sector.
While the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is not a provincial public holiday, Canadians are encouraged to take time to reflect on the harmful legacy of the residential school system in Canada.