September 30, 2022 marks the second National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in Canada, a day intended to acknowledge the impact of the residential school system on the country’s legacy. But for many, it’s also a day to heal, celebrate, teach, listen and learn about the rich cultural heritage of Indigenous communities in the country, as well as spotlight the issues that still plague many of them.
For some, the year that’s passed since the inaugural National Day for Truth and Reconciliation has brought a heightened curiosity and eagerness from many Canadians to learn more about issues faced by Indigenous Peoples that may have been overlooked otherwise.
This isn't just about trauma of residential schools, professor says
Jonathan Hamilton-Diabo is Mohawk from Kahnawake, a First Nations community outside of Montreal and works as an assistant professor at Victoria University in the University of Toronto. He's also the special advisor to the school’s president on Indigenous issues.
He says he’s noticed a “buildup” of interest and support since Orange Shirt Day started happening in 2013 on an unofficial basis. Since the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation became official in 2021, it appears that awareness keeps growing.
“(Residential schools) had a definite influence on so many aspects of Indigenous people like language loss, abuses that impact individuals and families for years to come,” he tells Yahoo News Canada. “(National Day for Truth and Reconciliation) has helped deepen the understanding of the resilience of Indigenous people. Despite what people went through, communities are still here. They’re working towards healing and progressing.”
He sees the statutory holiday as helping open up conversations to other issues and how to revisit these types of relationships to better understand each other. Particularly, that Indigenous communities should be recognized for more than the trauma that’s been brought upon them.
It’s important to understand how much (residential schools have) impacted us but to think about other facets of Indigenous culture and people. Not just to always focus on the negativity but also understand that the cultures are starting to thrive again. There’s a revitalization of language and ceremony. We’re seeing the contribution of Indigenous people today and recognizing the past, the people who’ve contributed.Jonathan Hamilton-Diabo, Assistant Professor, University of Toronto
Hamilton-Diabo stresses that not all Indigenous people feel the same way about the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, but at least it encourages discussions.
“There might be people in our communities who don’t like the day or think it’s not solving issues, but what it brings forward is that it allows us to have conversations,” he says. “If we didn't do it then how would we have space for conversations both positive and negative. And get a better understanding in the news, in schools and in so many aspects it’s being spoken about.”
A 'difficult but transformative' year in Canada
Sabre Pictou Lee is Mi'kmaq from the Eel River Bar First Nation in Northern New Brunswick and the CEO and co-founder of consulting firm Archipel Research and Consulting.
She describes the past year as “difficult but transformative”, especially with the on-going effort to honour unmarked graves of residential school victims and the attention that’s brought from the general Canadian population to understand the depths of severity of the residential school legacy.
“I’ve noticed quite a bit more public uptake to engage more in these difficult conversations and a willingness to learn,” she says. “I believe the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is a day of unlearning and relearning and that’s the purpose of this journey together.”
She explains that there’s a very thin line between the awareness and learning journey and publicizing Indigenous trauma.
“The National Day of Truth and Reconciliation isn’t a day that Indigenous people have to be re-traumatized and relive the trauma of being survivors,” Pictou Lee says.”It’s a day to learn and heal and celebrate the resilience and complexities that make up Canada.”
She adds that the day also isn’t intended to be around shaming non-Indigenous people who may not be quite sure how to observe the day.
“It’s about stoking the desire to learn and build better relationships,” she says.
At the foundation of reconciliation is responsibility and relationships. When you build relationships you have responsibilities in those relationships…If we’re stuck in a cycle of shame and re-traumatization, we’re not building good relationships and that’s not what the calls to action are about. They’re very much founded in need to acknowledge and then the need to heal and the need to build something new and collective.Sabre Pictou Lee, CEO and co-founder of Archipel Research and Consulting
She challenges Canadians to reexamine Indigenous/settler relationships by the way we think about water. “If we all think we have a right to a cup of water that shifts how we view water,” she says. “If we start thinking about how we have a responsibility to the water versus a right to the water, how we interact changes entirely.”
When it comes to what Canadians can do to mark the day, Pictou Lee says a lot of municipalities and provinces are putting on events and that a good place to start is through a Native Friendship Centre, which can be found in many communities, or the Native Women’s Association of Canada.
“It’s not just about going to an event or specific actions but starting that journey somewhere,” says Pictou Lee. “Maybe we don’t have people who know too much about residential schools or what the calls to action are. Those are great places to start.”