Local Indigenous leaders are welcoming an announcement this week from the federal government that creates a new statutory holiday to recognize residential school survivors.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the creation of the holiday as part of his government’s effort to fulfill the recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“Over the past decades, generations, and centuries, Canada failed in one of its fundamental commitments to respect and be partners of the Indigenous peoples who lived on this land for millennia,” Trudeau told national media last week.

“We broke that relationship, we failed to uphold the honour of the Crown and, more than that, we did our best to try to erase Indigenous cultures with such projects as residential schools.”

The announcement was generally welcomed by First Nations leaders across the country, though final details on when the date will be held are to be decided following consultations with First Nations, Inuit and Metis groups.

Bill Erasmus, national chief of the Dene Nation said the new statutory holiday’s focus is different than that of National Indigenous Peoples Day, which falls on June 21.

Whereas the late spring holiday is intended to celebrate all Indigenous issues, including culture, language, and political, economic and social issues, the new holiday would be more focused on the specific reality within Indigenous culture which is overcoming the legacy of residential schools.

Erasmus said it makes more sense to have the day on Sept. 30 to coincide with Orange Shirt Day and Every Child Matters awareness campaign that recognizes the trauma of residential school survivors. Since 2013, some Indigenous advocate groups and allies have been been building awareness in schools and other institutional venues on the legacy of pain associated with the federal government taking children from Indigenous families and placing them in residential school.

“I think it should be in September as the June one has been established over the years and the NWT has made it a holiday, he said. “Other provinces and territories should do the same.

“(First Nations) have been looking at the Orange Shirt Day which coincides with the idea of having it in September and I think that makes a lot of sense.”

While the statutory holiday would be initially limited to being for federal workers, territorial and provincial governments would have to announce a similar day for their jurisdictions to recognize the statutory holiday.

It is important that they do so, Erasmus said.

“We can’t devalue the need to understand what actually happened and to come terms with the profound effects that it has had,” Erasmus said. “It is monumental.

“This announcement is really significant because Canada is recognizing that it is significant. (Residential schools are) a dark chapter in the history of Canada and Canada is taking recognition. This is a good thing because it has affected a lot of families and a lot of people.”

Erasmus says he envisions the day having different educational elements to it and communities having the ability to mark it in their own ways.

“What might then happen over the years is that the focus may be on former students and the next time it might be on the inter-generational impact other students and so on. What are the inter-generational effects? What is the legacy left behind?”

The overall objective would be to build on the awareness efforts that the Orange Shirt Day has accomplished and to encourage individuals to do their own education on how residential schools has impacted everybody in Canada.

Bill Enge, president of the North Slave Metis Alliance says there should instead be a greater focus on the importance of June 21 as a national holiday across the country.

The NWT is the only jurisdiction in Canada that recognizes the day as a statutory holiday.

He opposes the need for a focus on only one component of Indigenous history.

“I think that there is more to Aboriginal people than the one dynamic of residential schools,” Enge said, adding that is not to undermine the suffering that occurred under the residential school system. “But it is only one dynamic of who we are.”
Enge said not all Indigenous peoples went to residential schools and that there should be more of a national appreciation on what Aboriginal people have contributed to building Canada, stretching back to the fur trade.

“National Indigenous Peoples day puts together all dynamics and is reflection on challenges of colonialism and residential schools and land dispossession. I don’t see the need for one separate day for residential schools.”

Questions posed to the GNWT as to how a new statutory holiday might apply to the NWT were not answered by press time.

Simon Whitehouse

Simon Whitehouse came to Yellowknife to work with Northern News Services in 2011. A through and through "County boy" from Prince Edward County, Ont., Simon obtained his journalism education at Algonquin...

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