On Sept. 30, Canada will mark the third National Day for Truth and Reconciliation (NDTR), intended for Canadians to honour survivors of residential schools, and those who never made it home.
Many across the country will commemorate the day in their communities with pow-wows, ceremonies and special services, while some federal buildings like the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill will be illuminated in orange. Canadian brands like Tim Hortons and Canadian Tire are selling orange sprinkle donuts and orange T-shirts, respectively, to raise money for Indigenous charities.
But while the efforts to raise awareness are underway, it doesn't appear to be leading to much systemic change, according to experts who spoke to Yahoo Canada.
Dr. Suzanne Stewart is a psychologist and professor of public health at University of Toronto, and a member of the Yellowknife Dene First Nation. She says that it’s a positive thing to see Indigenous reconciliation on the consciousness of the national landscape, but awareness and recognition are only going to get the country so far.
“Awareness doesn’t mean a lot without action and behavioural change,” Stewart says.
Over the past several years, there have been some steps towards change as a result of awareness. Toronto Metropolitan University is a prominent example: The university formally changed its name from Ryerson, whose namesake, Egerton Ryerson had ties to residential schools. Prior to the inaugural NDTR, statues and monuments for controversial figures with ties to residential schools started coming down across the country, and several public schools have been renamed.
But Stewart points out that if we take a deeper look, things are not improving for Indigenous communities when it comes to the discrimination they continually face in healthcare, social services, education, and in the justice system.
“While we have these nice sanitary things like donuts with orange on them, are these real things that matter and are affecting and saving our lives or improving the quality of life for Indigenous people happening right now? No, they aren’t,” she says. “In fact they’re getting worse.”
According to Homelessness Hub, a web-based research library and information centre, Indigenous people across the country are disproportionately affected by homelessness. A 2021 report from the City of Toronto, for example, found that Indigenous people make up 2.5 per cent of the city's population, yet 15 per cent of people experiencing homelessness.
A 2019 StatCan report found that suicide rates among First Nations people, Métis and Inuit were significantly higher than that among non-Indigenous people. The report showed that compared to the rate of non-Indigenous people, the risk of suicide was 1.6 times higher among Métis people, three times higher for First Nations people and nine times higher for Inuit people.
Buying a donut with orange sprinkles on it isn’t alleviating the realities our communities face, on reserve and off reserve.
Graham Paradis is a citizen of the Métis nation and a researcher with Archipel Research and Consulting. He says the most important and positive thing to come away with on NDTR is education and it appears people are learning about the issues faced by Indigenous communities.
“I think the more we’re able to educate the non-Indigenous population about our stories, our history, our present and foreseeable future, the better we can come to reconciling with Canada as a whole,” he says.
Paradis says public events for NDTR are an important way for people to interact with Indigenous communities and understand why things are the way they are and how things got that way. However, Canadians should try to recognize and avoid resting on the laurels of feel-good incentives.
“Buying a donut with orange sprinkles on it isn’t alleviating the realities our communities face, on reserve and off reserve,” Paradis says. “An orange donut ain’t fixing that any time soon.”
He admits it’s tough to pinpoint what non-Indigenous Canadians can do to affect more concrete change, aside from educating themselves, voting and showing up as allies.
And while most Canadians might feel good about concrete changes that are being made, like the fact that NDTR happens every year, or schools are being renamed, Paradis says that’s where they might get complicit.
“They’re not going to see the situation on reserve, they’re not going to see that nothing has changed within an Indigenous community,” he says. “It almost puts blinders on the average public and that’s what we need to be careful of with these types of celebrations and actions. That people don’t get comfortable and complicit.”
I don’t want it to become a performative day where people are just wearing orange shirts and showing up for a day.
Jaelyn Terriak, an Inuk researcher and facilitator with Archipel, also has mixed feelings about NDTR.
While she thinks it's important to have a day for people to educate themselves on the truth about the country's history and have important conversations, she hopes Canadians are committed to doing more work beyond the one day, when it comes to reconciliation.
“I don’t want it to become a performative day where people are just wearing orange shirts and showing up for a day but there’s nothing happening behind their actions,” she says. “Whether it’s individuals or organizations, we have to go beyond the truth part and there needs to be more actions.”
Terriak says that includes everything from donating to Indigenous organizations to having conversations with problematic family members to reading books about colonialism.
“Learn about settler colonialism, learn about capitalism and how that affects our communities,” she says. “Things just need to go a step further.”
Like Terriak, Stewart says that NDTR is a good step toward bringing awareness but it can’t stop there. She advises Canadians to become familiar with the 94 calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
“Change is a multi-level process that’s nonlinear,” she says. “And the next stage of change is about mobilizing our resources to make the change that we need to make. That involves bringing people together, strengthening relationships, learning about colonial history and its impacts on ourselves and other people in our community including Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.”