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'Sadness and hope': Indigenous leaders, academics speak on Sept. 30 as commitments go unfulfilled

This time last year, the Woodland Cultural Centre, a museum and Indigenous education centre on the site of a former Ontario residential school, was receiving about 50 to 75 visitors a day.

Now, it’s trickled down to about 10 per day, says Janis Monture, the executive director of the centre.

“The attention and the amount of people coming to our site is dramatically less…it’s fallen in regards to the awareness and advocacy piece of it,” said Monture, who identifies as a member of Mohawk Nation, Turtle Clan.

The centre, which sits on the site of the former Mohawk Institute Residential School that shuttered in 1970, has programming for residential school survivors, serves as an education centre to retain Indigenous languages and more, and also contains a museum that often hosts school tours.

Following 2021 mainstream media coverage of identifying more than 2,000 suspected graves of children buried at more than 140 former residential school sites across the country, the public came to the centre and left shoes, moccasins and stuffed toys at the steps of the former Mohawk school to commemorate the children that died. There are no longer dozens bringing those items.

And while the attention from settlers has morphed in the last year, Monture and the centre’s work to support survivors and retaining Indigenous knowledge, languages and practices hasn’t changed. That work is done every day, said Monture.

“We walk the halls, we are in rooms that used to be the dormitories or the headmaster's office. I don’t think it ever escapes us any day of the year,” she said.

“Acknowledging Sept. 30 is important but doing other things throughout the year, and acknowledging it 365 days a year, is really, really important.”

Janis Monture, executive director of the Woodland Cultural Centre.

The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on Sept. 30 is not only meant to commemorate the painful history of residential schools, where children were ripped from their families and forced into what were often Catholic, government-funded “schooling” institutions that served to strip them of their identities, and where many were sexually and physically abused and starved.

It’s also meant to emphasize the conversations that need to happen all year long about how institutions continue to harm Indigenous people through systemic discrimination steeped in colonialism that remains engrained in the fabric of Canada as a nation, several leaders and academics who identify as being part of Indigenous communities told

And there’s been a noticeable difference in how Sept. 30 is being approached this year that is dismaying, as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's 94 Calls to Action continue to be unfulfilled, they said.

For the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, spoke to several Indigenous leaders, including Monture, about feelings around the day more than a year since the suspected gravesites made world news, and in the weeks following Queen Elizabeth II death that took over the news cycle during a month when decolonization is meant to be top of mind.

Eve Tuck, professor at OISE at the University of Toronto, is Unangax̂ and a member of the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island, Alaska.

Eve Tuck, professor at OISE at the University of Toronto, is Unangax̂ and a member of the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island, Alaska. (Red Works)

"I feel an additional layer of sadness this year, and have been thinking about arguments for how this day should be observed. And I feel especially sensitive toward the idea of returning every year to a time of collective grief, and what that means when we live in a society where grief for Indigenous people is ongoing, relentless and is permanent.

"Setting aside time to acknowledge grief and to be in grief seems very important.

"A lot about what children are learning in schools about grief and who is grievable, I know families in which Indigenous children come home from school where there was curriculum about Orange Shirt Day or the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation and Indigenous children are very afraid, and very saddened by what they are hearing in schools and that’s because the teacher is offering the lesson and not anticipating that there are Indigenous children in their classrooms – Indigenous children who are the family members of survivors.

"I know children who have come home from school, feeling worried they would be taken away from their families and put in residential schools. And that’s because teachers can treat residential schooling as something that happened to somebody else, and not the families of children in the room.

"There are more children in state care than were in residential schools right now. The Canadian government and provinces still actively separate children from their families. It’s still an active form of treatment and experience for Indigenous children in Canada. It’s hard to assure children that this is not still happening.

"We have seen in very recent weeks an example of grief that is modelled by the state. I think we can look to Indigenous forms of collective grief and collective expressions of support and love."

David D. Varis is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Indigenous Knowledge, Education, Research and Applied Studies at the University of Prince Edward Island. Varis identifies as Cree. Varis teaches a mandatory course on Indigenous Studies.

David D. Varis is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Indigenous Knowledge, Education, Research and Applied Studies at the University of Prince Edward Island. Varis identifies as Cree. Varis teaches a mandatory course on Indigenous Studies. (Supplied)

"It’s a little bit of mixed feelings. There’s one of great sadness for those who were lost at the residential schools over this period of time, well over 150 years, and 150,000 Indigenous children attended those schools. One's heart breaks when we hear the stories of survivors.

"We do pay a great deal of honour and respect to those who went through that tragedy. I also worked in both provincial and federal prison systems, for most of my career. I was fortunate enough to help create with a number of Elders and Indigenous program officers, a substance abuse treatment program for Indigenous men who are federally incarcerated.

"Hearing their stories, and helping them heal, there’s a lot of healing that has to take place, to this day because of the intergenerational effects.

"Part of me is very, very sad and wishing that we didn’t have to go through such a day. But on the other hand, I’m feeling that the work by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the stories have really brought to the forefront the work that we must do to ensure this never, ever happens again.

"Education is seen as a way to put us on a better path forward, what we’re doing here at the university is presenting a mandated course and a whole suite of courses that will eventually form a program with students being able to receive a bachelor’s (degree) in Indigenous studies.

"So there’s hope. Sadness and hope are some of the feelings going through my mind."

Dawnis Kennedy works at Manitoba Indigenous Cultural Education Centre and is a fellow at the Yellowhead Institute. She is from Roseau River Anishinabe First Nation.

"My grandparents both attended residential schools. And my mother, her health was impacted. She was part of the tuberculosis epidemic that came out of the residential schools at that time. She was also a part of day school.

"For me, I find it challenging going through this week. There’s a lot of work for all of us to do, and even I’m a parent, and my son’s school is looking at residential schools. I always encourage schools to access resources that are Indigenous-led.

"No matter the challenges in having difficult conversations in how we address reconciliation, the legacy of residential schools, the work that we have in front of us, I think it’s important to take time every year to do this, to ask ourselves: what have we done to find the stories of each child and bring them home?

"I think about all of our survivors, and the work that they’re going to be doing on (Sept. 30). For our kids, it’s a time to recommit ourselves, all those things that my grandmother regretted, all the things she would have learned in that time, that’s now time for me to pick up. To go seek the language, the culture. It’s a time for me to think about, what is it that I need to do?

"I will continue to be asking that. My grandparents weren’t allowed to speak the language, they were taken away, they were punished, so for me, that part will not be addressed until our children can go to school already fluent in their language."

Christina Gray, an associate at JFK Law LLP in Vancouver, is a Ts’msyen citizen from Lax Kw’alaams in B.C. and Dene from Treaty 8 territory in the Northwest Territories.

Christina Gray, an associate at JFK Law Corporation in Vancouver, is a Ts'msyen citizen from Lax Kw'alaams in B.C. and Dene from Treaty 8 territory in the Northwest Territories. (Supplied)

"The tone was very different last year. The death of the Queen has overshadowed this day for Truth and Reconciliation and also the Pope visited a few weeks ago as well, and that has had some effect.

"People have been talking a lot about Sept. 30 as problematic, for turning reconciliation into an event rather than an action. Those are some things that I’ve been reflecting on in the past few days.

"It’s inextricable that Canada continues to remain a colonial country and that was very evident in the passing of the Queen. It’s nice there’s a day for reconciliation, but there’s several calls to action and only a few of them have been fulfilled. It’s looking at the calls to action, the hard ones, and not fulfilling just one or two a year.

"Last year, the federal (United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples) bill was passed into law and there was a big media release around June 21. It’s important that reconciliation just doesn’t happen on those days, but also throughout the year. It should be part of Canada’s action plan.

"It goes beyond having the day off. There should be more support for residential school survivors, and intergenerational survivors. I know several residential school survivors who died prematurely, and they would have been in their late 50s and early 60s. The emphasis should always be on the survivors and intergenerational survivors."

Mitch Case, Region 4 Regional Councillor, identifies as a citizen of the Métis Nation of Ontario from the historic Sioux Saint Marie Métis community.

“It is only through the hard work and determination, through survivors and Indigenous leadership and Indigenous communities who have gotten us to this point. 

"There’s an incredible amount of not just emotional labour, but physical, mental labour and time to get to the point where we are recognizing the history of this country more appropriately.

"And then there’s reflecting on where actually are we today? What injustices are still happening?

"Who would have thought the Pope would come to Canada and the Queen would die all in the same year, just in terms of historic events. Good, bad or indifferent, they are notable. Particularly the papal visit was all because survivors never gave up on that. 

"It should be a moment of reflection, not for Indigenous people, but for everyone else, for Canadians, to reflect on the history of this country and how they continue to benefit from colonialism. This isn’t a forgotten-about thing. 

"The real goal of residential schools was the destruction of culture to free up land and resources that didn’t belong to Canada. They had to destroy the culture in order to get their hands on those resources.

"If we’re all sad, but Indigenous people don’t have their land back, then all the
‘sorries’ and tears were for nothing.”

Tara Williamson, the Co-Research Director at the Indigenous Law Research Unit at the University of Victoria who works with the Yellowhead Institute, identifies a member of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation from Gaabishkigamaag (Swan Lake, Man.)

Tara Williamson, independent researcher and consultant who works with the Yellowhead Institute. (Supplied)

“The discussion of national holidays and commemorative events in the name of reconciliation -- especially reconciliation without truth -- is a red herring and distraction from the real and underlying issues that need to be addressed when it comes to the ongoing colonial violence faced by Indigenous peoples.

"These acts of recognition are placeholders for real and meaningful change. While there is certainly a place for ceremony in say, commemorating unmarked graves of dead children, it is an empty gesture while Indigenous kids continue to die in the child welfare system.

"While I am happy for increased awareness and education about the brutal legacy of residential schools, I also have reconciliation fatigue when faced with grand gestures that ultimately have no impact on me or my family.”


A previous version of this story misstated Tara Williamson's professional status as an independent researcher and consultant. It has been updated to reflect her role as the Co-Research Director at the Indigenous Law Research Unit at the University of Victoria. Top Stories

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