Content Warning: The following contains potentially triggering subject matter and includes mentions of residential schools and violence against Indigenous peoples and children
September 30th, 2022, marks the second year of the federal statutory holiday known as National Day for Truth and Reconciliation (NDTR) in Canada. It also coincides with Orange Shirt Day. Below, I give a brief introduction about each day and then move on to more important information on how to meaningfully engage with them. September 30th is often dubbed as a day of ‘national reflection’ –– a day of remembrance, action, and learning. Learning efforts must confront past and present colonial history and ongoing forms of anti-Indigeneity. We must also look for ways to amplify Indigenous voices, magnifying stories of hope and healing.
National Day for Truth and Reconciliation
NDTR commemorates the history and legacy of the residential school system and honours the resilience, dignity and strength of survivors and intergenerational survivors. NDTR is a direct response to Call to Action #80, which encouraged a federal statutory day of commemoration. Widespread acknowledgement of this tragic history, continued impact, and intergenerational trauma of Canada’s residential school legacy is imperative to the reconciliation process (Government of Canada, 2022).
Orange Shirt Day
Indigenous Children Matter. Intentional time should be carved out to honour all the children that did not make it home.
Orange Shirt Day is an Indigenous-led grassroots commemorative day intended to raise awareness of the individual, family, and community intergenerational impacts of residential schools (Government of Canada, 2022). Orange Shirt Day was inspired by residential school survivor Phyllis (Jack) Webstad’s account of having her new orange shirt stolen from her on the first day of school. It has since become an opportunity to keep annual discussions in the public sphere. The orange shirt is a symbol of the stripping away of culture, freedom and self-esteem experienced by Indigenous children over generations (Government of Canada, 2022). Positively, Phyllis has stated that orange shirts also represent “a little bit of justice for us survivors in our lifetime”.
Orange Shirt Day also promotes the concept of “Every Child Matters” to illustrate the importance of children in Indigenous communities. Personally, however, I opt for #IndigenousChildrenMatter. Toronto Indigenous Harm Reduction (TIHR, @torontoindigenousharmreduction), an entirely queer and Two-Spirit Indigenous collective states that of 139 residential schools across Canada, approximately 10,000 children in 11 schools have been found, leaving 128 more to investigate (TIHR, 2022). TIHR further reminds us that 139 is the federally recognized and agreed on count in Canada’s records. “Thousands of Indian hospitals, sanitariums, private run boarding schools, day schools for Métis children and other carceral institutions that Indigenous peoples were apprehended to” are unaccounted for (TIHR, 2022). The conservative estimate is that there are 75,000 potential unmarked graves across this country (TIHR, 2022).
Today, Indigenous children account for more than half (53.8 percent) of all children in the Canadian foster care system (Statistics Canada, 2021) despite representing only seven per cent of the youth population (CBC News, 2021). Advocates emphasize that the foster care system has replaced residential schools for Indigenous children.
So, I say again, Indigenous Children Matter.
You can read more about the phenomenal work that TIHR is doing here. Consider donating, too.
Wear an Orange Shirt
On September 30th, all Canadians are encouraged to wear orange. Please first aspire to understand the history behind the shirts and consider memorizing a few local organizations people can support/donate to. Reference them if your shirt initiates conversation. It is very important that we, as allies, do not engage in performative activism.
Tip: Orange shirts should be purchased from Indigenous artists, creatives, survivors and intergenerational survivors or organizations donating proceeds to Indigenous-serving organizations. Many Indigenous folks have warned against shirt exploitation. Settlers should not be profiting off Indigenous people’s stories and trauma. This is happening way too often.
If most of those options are sold out, consider donating to the Orange Shirt Society instead.
How to Talk to Children about Residential Schools
I have spent countless hours brainstorming ways to talk about difficult topics with young ones (including teens). Topics like residential schools, racism and injustice can be hard, especially when unmarked graves are still being uncovered. I believe child-appropriate exposure is important at a young age as it builds empathy, understanding and respect. These are foundational principles of reconciliation. One of the best ways to have this conversation is through literacy. Books provide context for difficult conversations.
Tip 1: Firstly, choose books by diverse Indigenous authors and/or representing intersectional Indigenous identities. You can also listen to the stories of residential school survivors, Elders, and Knowledge Keepers. Look for opportunities in your community or try virtual stories.
Titles in this Toronto Public Library (TPL) booklist are Indigenous-authored accounts of residential school experiences, for children up to age 12. A more extensive list on Orange Shirt Day can be found here, as well.
Tip 2: Make sure you are informed before you initiate a conversation. Take time to confront your own biases and assumptions. If areas come up that you struggle with, be honest. There is a lot of power in “I don’t know, I’ll get back to you”.
Tip 3: Before starting any book, ask “what do you already know?” Starting where the child is at is a great way to find out what you need to build on or correct (if misinformation exists).
Tip 4: Remind younger children that they are safe. Let children and teens know that their feelings and questions are valid. Remind them that they are loved. Encourage curiosity and brave questions in a safe space.
Tip 5: Remember to leave books in an easily accessible place in your home (coffee table etc.). This builds interest in books and allows children to browse on their own terms.
Tip 6: Empower children to act, whether through artmaking, activism or donating their time
(with your support) to projects that center Indigenous communities. Encourage self-expression. Residential school victims were forced into silence. Children of all ages need to know their voice is one of the most powerful tools they have.
Tip 7: It takes a village. Reach out to other parents/caregivers/educators to debrief and share information on conversation challenges, wins and everything in between.
When engaging with material for both days, please ensure to highlight the beauty and resilience of Indigenous communities and cultures, too. A great source for this is TPL’s recommendations for children, teens and adults as a part of the Read Indigenous campaign. Titles in this campaign are selected annually with TPL’s Indigenous Advisory Council. If you are not based in Toronto, check your local library for these titles.
“Education is what got us into this mess, and education will get us out”— Hon. Murray Sinclair
Other educational resources:
I am not an Indigenous community member. Many of these resources are recommended by Indigenous folks, Indigenous-led and Indigenous-serving organizations.
I try to focus on online options, so that resources are accessible to most.
- Use the interactive tool, Beyond 94, to review the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and monitor progress.
- Register for Indigenous Canada, a massive online open course from Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta. It’s a free, flexible virtual program for all types of learners.
- Watch documentary films by Indigenous filmmakers.
- Listen to the stories of Indian Residential School Survivors on A Day to Listen.
- Intersectionality matters. Read the Reclaiming Power and Place (PDF) – The Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
- Check out events happening in and around Toronto on the City of Toronto’s Indigenous Events page. If you do not live in Toronto/GTA, make sure to check out what is being offered in your own communities/local libraries.
- Truth and Reconciliation Week is a bilingual educational program open to all schools across Canada. All sessions will be held virtually, allowing classroom participation from across the country and the involvement of Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. From September 26-30, 2022, registration is required. Recordings will be made available to the public afterwards.
- The Assembly of First Nations has developed the It’s Our Time First Nations Tool Kit as the basis of a comprehensive strategy to reach out to First Nations students, teachers, schools, communities and the Canadian public at large. Bringing together First Nations and non-First Nations people and fostering a spirit of cooperation, understanding, and action is the project goal.
Let us continue to amplify truth as we build towards reconciliation.
Canadian Wellness Resources
Engaging with residential school histories and legacies can lead to emotional reactions and difficult thoughts and feelings. I am especially thinking of and sending love to Indigenous community members. If you need support, please connect with the following wellness resources:
- A National Residential School Crisis Line is available to provide support to former Residential School students and their families. You can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the free of charge 24-Hour National Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419.
- Indigenous peoples across Canada can also connect with The Hope for Wellness Help Line 24 hours a day, seven days a week for counseling and crisis intervention. Call the toll-free helpline at 1-855-242-3310 or connect to the online chat.
- Talk4Healing is a culturally grounded, fully confidential helpline available in 14 languages for Indigenous women in Ontario. Call the toll-free number at 1-855-554-HEAL (4325).
Additionally, this content can be hard on anyone. Non-Indigenous folks, please also reach out for support if needed. Free and confidential mental health support is available to anyone who may be affected.
CTV News (2022), https://beta.ctvnews.ca/national/canada/2021/6/7/1_5459374.amp.html
Government of Canada, (2022). https://www.canada.ca/en/canadian-heritage/campaigns/national-day-truth-reconciliation.html.
Toronto Indigenous Harm Reduction, (2022). https://www.torontoindigenoushr.com/
Notes Between Us (NBU) is a blog about conversations and topics of interest to the writers. The writers are expressing their personal opinions solely. The essays represent their personal beliefs and not that of their workplaces or any organization they are associated with.