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The Government of Canada recently passed legislation to make September 30th a federal statutory holiday. National Day for Truth and Reconciliation will be observed to recognize the tragic history and ongoing legacy of residential schools, and to honour the Survivors, their families and communities

The designation of the day of reflection is an important step toward reconciliation, and addresses one of the 94 Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission:

“We call upon the federal government, in collaboration with Aboriginal peoples, to establish, as a statutory holiday, a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation to honour survivors, their families, and communities, and ensure that public commemoration of the history and legacy of residential schools remains a vital component of the reconciliation process.”

To understand the meaning and importance of National Truth and Reconciliation Day and the ways in which Canadians can observe on September 30th, RBC recently spoke with Stephanie Scott, Executive Director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR). She shares her thoughts of how the day can be both a moment of reflection and a powerful spark for action in support of residential school Survivors, their families, and the little ones who never came home.

Stories of Survival

Before Stephanie Scott took on the role of Executive Director at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, she was the Manager of Statement Gathering for three years, during which time she sat with hundreds of Survivors, witnessing their statements and listening to their life histories. “It was an incredible, emotional, moving experience. I have heard so many stories of survival,” said Scott. “I also heard horrific stories about young children who witnessed the death of their peers – stories of little ones of four and seven years old who held their friends until they passed away.”

While the stories were painful, many were also filled with a sense of hope and a powerful tone of resilience. “Working with Survivors has really driven me and given me the opportunity to do what they asked – to share their experience.”

Today, Scott is advancing the mandate of the NCTR, which involves being a steward for the experiences, photos and memories entrusted to them by the Survivors, to continue the research work begun by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and to promote education and understanding. “We are bringing remembrance into the public consciousness for all Canadians and future generations,” she says. “Working with teachers and educators, we are sharing stories of Survivors and demonstrating the growth and resilience of Indigenous communities.”

A Sixties Scoop survivor, whose mother went to residential school, Scott’s work is very emotional and close to her heart. “It has taken decades of work for me to understand who I am and where I came from. I’ve been learning the culture for nearly thirty years now and I still only know a tiny bit – I’m still piecing my family history together. When people talk about truth and reconciliation, there’s not an immediate fix – it’s going to take decades of work.”

A day to honour and remember

Scott wants to see the country bathed in orange on September 30th, which is also known as Orange Shirt Day, an initiative begun by Survivor Phyllis Webstad in 2013.

“We work closely with Phyllis to honour Indigenous residential school survivors and their families. Her story has moved the country through the simple act of sharing and knowing, explains Scott” Webstad’s orange shirt was taken away on her first day of attending St. Joseph’s Mission when she was six years old. After sharing her story at a press conference promoting reconciliation events in her community, Orange Shirt Day was born and has steadily gained momentum, particularly among students and young people.

This year, the first time the day is designated a national day of remembrance, Scott hopes that all Canadians will take the time to reflect, learn and do the work that needs to be done to move forward to reconciliation. “That means working with Indigenous People, sharing their voices, reading Indigenous authors, watching Indigenous-made films, learning about Indigenous cultures and understanding the true history of where we live in this country.”

Working with the NCTR, the CBC and APTN have agreed to provide a full one-hour national broadcast, which will include both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians from all walks of life coming together to acknowledge the past. “I hope that people take some time to pay attention and remember those children that never came home and honour the Survivors who are still with us,” said Scott.

Much work still to do

While the day offers an opportunity for Canadians to honour and reflect, Scott and her team recognize the role the Centre can play in continuing to engage and educate Canadians.

One way is through a full week of planned broadcast educational programs for students in Grades 5 to 12 across Canada. From September 27 – October 1, Truth and Reconciliation Week, which is sponsored exclusively by RBC, was created to continue the conversation about the truths of First Nations Treaties, the Métis and Inuit Land Claims and the residential school system in the days leading up to Orange Shirt Day and National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

“Truth and Reconciliation Week expanded from one day to a full week because there was such a thirst for knowledge,” explains Scott. “Teachers were asking for more, indicating they didn’t know how to approach an Elder or a Survivor, for instance. So the Centre put everything online so they could have easy access to information in English, French and Indigenous languages.”

Scott is pleased that engagement is high across the country, but admits reconciliation is a slow process. Of the 94 Calls to Action outlined in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, only 14 have been addressed so far. “There is a lot of work left to do,” she says. “And every day we are losing Survivors. They deserve to see tangible reconciliation in their lifetime. We don’t have the luxury of time anymore – so people, take note, take action. Don’t disappoint them.”

The children who moved a country

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation’s number one focus remains missing children research, which involves naming and finding all the children who never came home. Right now, the Centre has 4117 names on their Memorial Register and is beginning the second phase of their research work. “There are still parents today who don’t know where their children are, they don’t know how they died,” explained Scott. “If we can find their children and help them with their healing, we’re going to really start to see even more change.”

And Scott believes that the discoveries of unmarked graves are pushing people to take action. “Finding the little ones has created a change in this country,” she said. “It used to be that we always had to do the outreach, we always had to ask for support and funding to educate Canadians. Now there is a reversal and people are saying: What can we do to help? How can I move forward? Canadians were really shocked this time.”

She also feels people have acknowledged that it’s crucial for everyone to move forward together – as parents, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, grandparents. “It has been an emotional journey, but I really believe that the spirits of those little children are strong and present, and helping to make change today.”

On September 30th, Canadians of all walks of life are encouraged to begin or continue their personal learning journey. The 2021 Indigenous Partnerships Success Showcase is a great place to start.

Watch John Stackhouse Interview The Honourable Murray Sinclair, chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Watch the full video.