People in London and area plan to come together on Thursday to mark Canada's first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, which honours residential school survivors, their families and communities.
The federal government designated Sept. 30 as a new national statutory holiday — also known as Orange Shirt Day — this summer as a response to one of the 94 calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which examined the residential school system that separated Indigenous children from their families with the aim of assimilating them.
Many communities in the London area have chosen to observe the day by organizing in-person and virtual events.
At Chippewas of the Thames First Nation, southwest of London, the community will join its neighbouring First Nations — Munsee-Delaware and Oneida Nation of the Thames — to commemorate survivors of residential schools with its annual Orange Shirt Day.
"This year, due to COVID restrictions, we decided to ensure community safety that we would provide the event virtually," said Tammy Deleary, director of social services for Chippewas of the Thames, and one of the organizers, alongside the First Nation's cultural and language department and land, treaty and environment department.
"It's about bringing awareness about what truth and reconciliation are and how it has impacted our communities, specifically. We know in our community, (the schools) had some detrimental impacts in terms of the loss of our language, our culture and part of our family structures."
The day will begin with a sunrise ceremony, followed by virtual programming at 10 a.m. The program will include a presentation about Mount Elgin Industrial Residential School, which was located on the Chippewa of the Thames reserve, and information about the Save the Barn Campaign, an initiative to preserve a barn that is the only remaining structure from the former residential school, Deleary said.
Deleary said the new statutory holiday will be a time for reflection and learning and serve to highlight the work happening in the community toward healing and revitalizing Indigenous culture and language.
The online event will also feature performances from the Little Woodpeckers (Baapaasesag in Anishinaabe) drumming group, composed of students from the community's elementary school and the Three Fires Drum Group.
Orange Shirt Day was inspired by the story of Phyllis Webstad, of the Stswecem'c Xgat'tem First Nation in B.C., who, at the age of six, had her orange shirt taken away from her on her first day of residential school. A gift from her grandmother, the shirt was never returned.
In London, the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is being recognized with the Turtle Island Healing Walk on Dundas Place from 6 to 9 p.m. It will feature an Indigenous pop-up market and knowledge sharing.
"This is not a 'walk' but another step towards hope and reconciliation," reads a Facebook post for the event.
Participants are asked to wear a mask and the colour orange and bring cash to support vendors.
Besides the Mount Elgin school, Southwestern Ontario was also home to two the Mohawk Institute Residential School near Brantford. They were part of a network of the church- and government-run residential schools designed to assimilate Indigenous children into Canadian culture. The first of Canada's 139 residential schools opened in the early 1800s and the last closed in 1996.
Stories of residential schools and unmarked burial sites were featured in a report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015 but came under renewed scrutiny this summer following the discovery of thousands of graves in Western Canada.
For more information about the Turtle Island Healing Walk, visit the Facebook Page @turtleislandhealingwalk.
Details of the Orange Shirt Day event at Chippewas of the Thames First Nation will be released on Thursday morning at chippewaorangeshirtday.com.
The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada
Calvi Leon, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press