OTTAWA – The federal government is planning to announce a new statutory holiday to mark Canada’s "tragic and painful" residential school legacy.
CTV News has confirmed that the government is consulting with Indigenous groups ahead of moving forward with declaring an annual day to acknowledge what has been declared a time of cultural genocide in Canada.
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde told CTV News in a statement that he supports the creation of the day being a statutory holiday to recognize what he called "the tragic and painful legacy of residential schools to show respect and empathy to the far too many children taken from their homes and families and to honour survivors and their families."
Bellegarde said the day would help increase public understanding about this part of Canada’s history, and stated that it’s important that Indigenous groups are involved in choosing the appropriate date.
"In order to chart a way forward, we have to really know what happened in the past," Bellegarde said on CTV News Channel. "Everybody should know this. And so by having a stat holiday it’s all part of that education and awareness process."
As first reported by The Globe and Mail, the government is eyeing two possible dates for the holiday: either National Indigenous Peoples day on June 21, or Sept. 30, which is recognized as Orange Shirt Day.
In 2017, NDP MP Georgina Jolibois tabled a private member’s bill to make June 21 a statutory holiday, but the legislation is still at second reading after one day of debate in March. Sept. 30 commemorates the experience of students at residential schools, referring specifically to the experience of one former student Phyllis Webstad, whose shiny orange shirt—given to her by her grandmother—was taken away from her on her first day at residential school.
In an interview with CTV News, Webstad said she hopes the stat holiday can be a teachable moment for children and adults.
“I have four grandchildren in elementary and middle school, and for their peers to be learning about their history it will make a different world for them to grow up in than I ever experienced, than my mother ever experienced,” Webstad said.
“For survivors, it’s like a little bit of justice is being done.”
The idea to create a statutory holiday was one of the 94 calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has pledged to enact all of the recommendations that fall under federal jurisdiction. Currently this promise is considered "underway with challenges" according to the federal mandate letter tracker, meaning the government is having a hard time fulfilling the commitment.
According to a Canadian Press report, the government will be bringing the discussion to Parliament, allowing Indigenous people and residential school survivors to offer their perspectives. CP is also reporting that the government will back Jolibois' private member’s bill.
"We have committed to fulfilling all of the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Call to Action 80 asks the Government of Canada to establish a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation to honour the survivors of Residential Schools. That’s exactly what we will do, and we will do that in partnership with Indigenous Peoples," Simon Ross, a spokesperson for Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez told CTV News in a statement.
At present there are five days marked as national statutory holidays: Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, Canada Day, Labour Day, and Good Friday.
There are other federal holidays, such as Victoria Day, Remembrance Day, and Thanksgiving, but they are not recognized in every province.
In order for this proposed new stat day to be recognized nationwide, each province and territory would have to change their laws.
Pam Palmater, chair of Indigenous governance at Ryerson University, said there are still major issues facing First Nations communities today, including a housing crisis, years-long boil water advisories and high rates of Indigenous people in Canadian prisons and foster care. She said many of those problems have roots in the residential school system.
Creating a new stat holiday, Palmater said, is “just one of many things that should be done.”
“It’s important to also have the symbolic part of things, but if you only have the symbolism without the concrete actions to make amends and to undo the harms, then we’re not going to be much further ahead,” she said.
Speaking to some of the nay-sayers that have entered in the online discussion about the prospect of this holiday, including controversial Conservative MP Maxime Bernier, Bellegarde called it "sad," saying it isn’t about living in the past, rather learning from it.
"We've got a lot of education, awareness, to do amongst ourselves in order to build a better country for our children and grandchildren, and this is all part of that process," Bellegarde said.
With files from CTV News' Michel Boyer