A proposal to create a new national holiday in honour of residential school survivors and their families is moving forward in Parliament.
Cabinet ministers spoke at length on Oct. 23 about Bill C-5, a bill which seeks to make Sept. 30 a statutory holiday in response to call to action 80 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) calls to action.
Sept. 30 currently marks Orange Shirt Day, a grassroots movement named after a story by residential school survivor Phyllis (Jack) Webstad. At six years-old, on her first day at the St. Joseph Mission Residential School (1891-1981), Webstad had her shiny new orange shirt (bought by her grandmother) taken from her.
The day is meant to encourage meaningful dialogue about residential schools and their ongoing intergenerational impacts. Webstad is one of countless survivors who attended Canadian residential schools, the last federally-run facility (The Gordon Residential School, Saskatchewan) closing as recently as 1996.
In parliament on Oct. 23, Minister of Canadian Heritage Steven Guilbeault called a national holiday commemorating survivors “symbolic,” and a way to provide further education on the subject.
“Teachers across the country will be able to build on discussions about residential schools that are already underway in many schools,” he said. “Families will have a reason to talk about reconciliation at home. Canada will have a day to reflect on our history and our values as a society.”
He said it’s unfortunate that many Canadians “do not know of the history of the Indian residential school system and its long-term effects on Indigenous peoples.”
Gallibeault initially tabled Bill C-5 on Sept.29. A similar bill was introduced by former NDP MP Georgina Jolibois in 2017, as a response to the TRC.
The TRC was launched in 2008 as part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA). It was created to educate Canadians on the lasting impacts of the residential school system, and to lay a foundation for lasting reconciliation.
There are 94 Calls to Action outlined in the report, all of which address ongoing disparities in the realms of child-welfare, education, language and culture, health and justice.
The 80th call to action calls upon the government to establish a holiday that will honour survivors of residential schools, their families and communities and ensure public commemoration.
In 2017 Senator Murray Sinclair, former Chair of the TRC commission discussed the legacy of the Canadian government’s policy towards Indigenous people, and the path towards reconciliation with Canada School of Public Service.
“Understanding why Indigenous people are suffering, or are complaining about the treatment at the hands of the public — or the Canadian government — or by provincial governments of their sense of rights — is something that many public servants still need some work to understand,” Sinclair stated. “If I could provide them with the opportunity to feel that at their inner core, that’s what I would give them as a Christmas gift.”
And while Senator Sinclair may not see public servants obtaining a level of understanding in the form of a Christmas gift, it may very well come through as a national holiday.
Bill C-5 will be debated further in the house, then moved to the voting stage. If passed, it will move to committee, enter a report stage, a third reading and then to senate where senators, including Sinclair, will have the final say.
Catherine Lafferty, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Discourse