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A Settler’s Reflections on Orange Shirt Day: Reconciliation as awareness, acceptance, apology, atonement and action


Author’s Note: Please don’t let this be the only article that you read today. Let’s center Indigenous voices and the experience of Survivors on today of all days. There are lots of great resources out there. You can find some of them here, here, here, and here.

Today represents the first Federal National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. It is also Orange Shirt Day, a day meant to witness and honour the healing journey of residential school survivors and their families, and to commit to the ongoing process of reconciliation. September 30th was chosen as Orange Shirt Day because it is the time of year when children were taken from their homes to residential schools and because it is an opportune time to set the stage for anti-racism and anti-bullying for the coming school year.

As a settler, I’ve been reflecting on what this day means and what my personal obligations are as well as those of Canadian society.

The creation of this new federal statutory holiday addresses one of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (the “TRC” or “Commission”) was established following the conclusion of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history, which involved not just the federal government but the churches that ran the residential schools throughout Canada. Its mandate was to inform all Canadians about what happened in residential schools. Over six years, the Commission heard from Survivors and brought national attention to what had long been known by Survivors and by perpetrators about the residential schools system. In 2015, the TRC released its report and 94 Calls to Action. These calls to action are not just directed at government – there are actions that all people in Canada can take. Many of these Calls to Action remain unanswered and unfulfilled.

But what is reconciliation and how do we, as settlers, engage in the process of reconciliation?

Senator Murray Sinclair, the Chair of the TRC, said that, “for reconciliation to work, and for our relationship to be renewed, there must be awareness, acceptance, apology, atonement and action.”

The new federal statutory holiday is a step (at a federal level at least) towards “awareness” and “acceptance”. It is intended as a “Day of Reflection” and is meant to provide federal-sector employees with an opportunity to recognize and commemorate the legacy of residential schools. It is an important reminder of Canada’s shameful (and ongoing) history of removing Indigenous children from their families, the horrendous atrocities committed in residential schools, and the lasting impacts this legacy has left on Indigenous people, both collectively and individually.

However, as the discoveries in Kamloops, Marieval, Cranbrook and other locations make clear, we’re still a far way off from understanding the whole truth of the Indian Residential Schools. The discovery of mass, unmarked graves of children on the grounds of residential schools across the country came as a shock to many settlers, but that shouldn’t have been the case. Survivors have been telling us about unmarked graves for years, about children who (were) disappeared at the schools, as well as the many, many children who died at residential schools due to illness, malnutrition, medical experimentation, or abuse, and who were never returned to their families. In many cases, family members were not even notified that their beloved child had died.

In its report, the Commission indicated that it found records showing that 3,200 Indigenous children had died in the residential school system. But Senator Sinclair said at that time that he estimated the number to be much higher – possibly 5 or 10 times higher – because the burial records were so poor, and because in some cases, the deaths were (and still are) being intentionally hidden. More recently, Senator Sinclair said that during the Commission’s interviews, Survivors spoke about the children who went missing and the mass burial sites. The Commission asked the government for permission to conduct a fuller inquiry, but that request was denied. Until the whole truth is known, efforts towards reconciliation will always fall short.

And what of apology, atonement and action?

The federal government has apologized, and so too have the Anglican, United and Presbyterian churches. On September 24, 2021, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops issued an apology for the first time after refusing to do so for many years, to the great outrange of Survivors and settlers alike. The Pope, the head of the Catholic Church, has as of yet failed to apologize.  

It seems unlikely that the refusal to apologize is due to concerns about liability. Ontario, British Columbia and most other provinces have an Apology Act, which clearly stipulates that, in most cases, an apology is not an admission of guilt and cannot be used to establish liability. There is also recent case law that supports the argument that this legislation would apply to apologies issued abroad (from the Vatican, for example). This apology is a meaningful part of reconciliation for some Survivors and, to this end, Indigenous leaders have secured a meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican this December to discuss a potential papal apology. The power of an apology cannot be underestimated (particularly when it is coupled with atonement and action).

As for atonement, we have a ways to go at both a government and individual level. To atone means to repair a wrong. An obvious act of atonement is for the federal and provincial governments to honour their agreements with Indigenous Peoples and to respect their Aboriginal Rights and Aboriginal Title. The fact that only one First Nation has ever established title to its ancestral lands is an indicator of just how much work we have to do to atone. This raises tough (and inconvenient) questions relating to economic and political reconciliation, and the fact that the philosophical and ideological foundations that led to residential schools continue to underpin our legal doctrines.

Then there’s action. When he finished his mandate as Chair of the TRC, Senator Sinclair said, “We have described for you a mountain. We have shown you the path to the top. We call upon you to do the climbing.” Whether we are federally regulated employees or not, September 30th provides all of us with an opportunity to continue – or begin – that climb, both collectively and individually. For me personally, it means educating myself and, as a mother of 3-year-old twins, teaching my kids, in an accessible way, about Indian Residential Schools and reconciliation. If you’re looking for kid-friendly books, you can find some here. My colleague, Kelly Doctor, also provided a list of resources for lawyers and union reps on National Indigenous Peoples Day, which you can find here. Education is just the beginning of the work that needs to be done, but it is a starting point that lays the groundwork for meaningful action.

I will sign off with a final note: As we take this opportunity today to reflect on the lasting impact of the residential school system, let’s not stop with the experience of residential schools and let’s not stop with today. Let’s take this opportunity to truly start to get to know our Indigenous neighbours. Listen to their stories, hear about their experiences, find out about their lives and their communities. Share in their sorrow, but also in their joy, creativity and passion. And start to climb.