Toronto kicked off two days of programming Friday to commemorate and mark the upcoming National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, also known as Orange Shirt Day.
The day started with a sunrise ceremony, followed by the beginning of the city's sixth annual Indigenous Legacy Gathering, put on by the Toronto Council Fire Native Cultural Centre in Nathan Phillips Square.
Addresses by Indigenous elders and politicians began the gathering, which is described by the council as an "avenue where stories, teachings, and the vibrant traditions of our people are shared and appreciated through workshops, presentations, dance, film, and music."
Ontario Regional Chief John Hare, of the M'Chigeeng First Nation on Manitoulin Island, said the planned events are also about honouring Indigenous children, their families and descendants who suffered from experiences in Canada's residential school system.
"I think of all those children. Had they not had to live through hell, where would they be today? If they had got the education they should have been given?" Hare asked the assembled crowd.
"There are some horror stories we have lived, but we are not going nowhere. Our kids are first and foremost," he continued.
Hare said he personally refuses to treat the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation as a "holiday" until the remains of all Indigenous children who died or went missing while attending residential schools are returned to their home communities.
"But I don't think I will see that in my lifetime," he reflected.
More than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were forced to attend church-run, government-funded residential schools between the 1870s and 1997. The schools aimed to assimilate Indigenous children while eradicating Indigenous languages and cultures, and there was widespread abuse.
Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow also gave a short address.
"I stand here in solidarity with the Indigenous communities and share your pain as we commemorate Orange Shirt Day and mark the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. It's about our country's truth," Chow said.
"We need to face it, no matter how difficult and shameful that truth ... Getting to the truth is hard, but getting to reconciliation is even harder."
Teepees will line the space outside of Toronto City Hall as part of the Legacy Gathering, each housing a different Indigenous organization. There will be Indigenous dancing, drumming, singing, vendors, lacrosse teachings, sacred fire teachings, and Metis fiddlers and jugglers.
Teepees were set up at the 2023 Indigenous Legacy Gathering at Nathan Phillips Square as part of the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. (CBC)
Erik Wakegijig, who works in the Toronto Fire Council's youth and social media sectors, said there would be full days of programming on both Friday and Saturday, which is the official day.
"It really showcases that us, we Indigenous people, aren't just things that you can read about in your textbooks in high school. We're people who live in the community," he said.
"We live in Toronto. We don't just live out in the woods. These type of things are just ways for us to let people know that we exist, we're here, and celebrate with us," he said.
Billed as a celebration and an educational experience, the gathering is one of the main events honouring Truth and Reconciliation in Toronto, aiming to reflect the diversity of Indigenous cultures. The council says the event this year is about "honouring our Grandmother Moon," who plays a vital role in "bringing harmony to the world" in Indigenous creation stories.
Vendors set up in Nathan Phillips Square as the city prepares to mark the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. (CBC)
"Recognizing that the event this year takes place on a full moon, the Gathering will acknowledge and honour her presence, allowing for reflection on the critical role that our grandmothers have or had in our lives," the city said in a news release.
On Friday night, there was a full moon ceremony.
Day holds many meanings
The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation itself can mean different things to different people.
Anthony Gladue, a storyteller, said the day is a time for Indigenous people to remember residential school trauma and it's a time for non-Indigenous people to understand that trauma. He said it is important to break the cycle of intergenerational trauma.
"It's a time to remember who we are as Anishinaabe people to find our spirit once again," Gladue said.
Anthony Gladue, a storyteller, says of the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation: 'It's a time to remember who we are as Anishinaabe people to find our spirit once again.' (CBC)
Dean Doxtator, a residential school survivor, said the day is emotional and hits home. He said he's not sure if Canadians understand the full impact of residential schools on Indigenous peoples.
"We sent our kids to school. They're supposed to return home. These kids didn't return home. I'm lucky to be here today because I was in residential school and I was in day school. I know ones that have gone missing," he said.
Orange Shirt Day began in 2013 to honour residential school survivor Phyllis Webstad, who had her orange shirt taken away on her first day at St. Joseph Mission Residential School. The shirt was a gift from her grandmother.
"The orange shirt is a symbol of the stripping away of culture, freedom and self-esteem experienced by Indigenous children over generations," the federal government says.
Other events happening in Toronto:
Native Child and Family Services of Toronto's 26th Annual Community Pow Wow, Dufferin Grove Park (875 Dufferin St.), Grand Entry: 12 p.m.
National Day for Truth and Reconciliation at the Toronto Zoo on Saturday from 9:15 a.m. to 2 p.m. A smudge ceremony will take place from 9:15 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. at the zoo's front entrance to open the zoo. From 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., at the First Nations Art Garden (near Caribou Café), there will be an orange shirt pin craft, tobacco ties, pelt touch table and traditional medicines. The zoo will offer complimentary admission to all self-identifying Indigenous people.
National Day for Truth and Reconciliation Event at the Kortright Centre for Conservation on Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00pm. This public event is offered in partnership with True North Aid, a non-Indigenous organization which provides humanitarian assistance to remote Indigenous communities across Canada. The activities will involve a self-guided tour of Truth and Reconciliation related themes along the Kortright Centre for Conservation trail system.
Truth and Reconciliation Day on Saturday from 12 noon to 8 p.m., hosted by aaniin retail inc. at Stackt Market, 28 Bathurst St. There will be Indigenous artisans from across Ontario and musical performances from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.
The Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund will partner with media and radio stations around Canada on Saturday for a panel discussion called A Day to Listen 2023, from 6 a.m to 6 p.m. local time. Guests will speak about Indigenous identity through conversations about representation in sports and entertainment, the fusion of traditional and contemporary music, land protection and the impacts of climate change and more, the organizations say.