OTTAWA – The federal government seems "stuck" as it tries to decide the date for a new Indigenous-focused statutory holiday, or whether the focus should be sombre or celebratory. This is prompting some to suggest just creating two separate holidays to commemorate both.

The House Canadian Heritage Committee has been studying an NDP MP’s private member's bill that proposes a new day off in recognition of Indigenous people. If the first few months of its study are any indication, deciding when this coming new stat holiday will be, and what it’ll be about will disappoint some.

The contrasting views—whether the day should be focused on celebrating Indigenous culture and be held on June 21, or on Sept. 30 to recognize the legacy of residential schools— have prompted some groups to suggest just creating two separate statutory holidays to satisfy both sides.

The June occasion is already recognized as National Indigenous Peoples Day and is seen as a celebration of the culture and contributions of Indigenous people in Canada. The September date is Orange Shirt Day, which is focused on the experience of students at residential schools. The name refers specifically to the experience of one former student named Phyllis Webstad, whose shiny orange shirt—given to her by her grandmother—was taken away from her on her first day at a residential school.

In September, the government supported passing NDP MP Georgina Jolibois' Bill C-369 into committee for further study, but was open about the potential to amend the proposed legislation to change the date. At the time, the government said it wanted to hear from Indigenous people about what date they’d prefer for the annual holiday. The committee has been studying the bill sporadically since November and has consistently been hearing contrasting views.

One of the groups speaking in favour of creating two separate holidays is the Native Women’s Association of Canada.

"The first being national Indigenous peoples day which is a day of celebration, a day to recognize Indigenous people's stories that are full of vibrant and diverse cultures with significant contributions not just to their communities and not just to Canada, but to the world. The second is a national day of truth and reconciliation which is a day of reflection and remembrance," NWAC’s legal counsel Virginia Lomax told committee members during a meeting on Tuesday.

"Combining a day of celebration with a day of reconciliation in our view is inappropriate and disrespectful," Lomax said, questioning whether the government would consider combining Canada Day and Remembrance Day.

Dilemma over what day

Since the federal government signalled in August 2018 that they were planning to announce a new statutory holiday to mark Canada's "tragic and painful" residential school legacy, debate has been ongoing over whether or not that should be the focus of the new federal day off.

June 21 was the date proposed by Jolibois in her private member’s bill for the holiday to fall on. Though, the government has floated Orange Shirt Day as an alternative. Jolibois has been vocal in her opposition to the potential for her initiative to be coopted to focus on the past record of settler Canadians.

"When I consulted with my colleagues and my community, I believed that Sept. 30 could serve that purpose, but if we think about the bigger picture of reconciliation, I believe June 21 must be a statutory holiday. I think First Nations, Métis and Inuit people are more than the trauma they've experienced," Jolibois told the committee on the first day of its study.

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Her position has been supported by many witnesses, including Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami President Natan Obed.

"It would be in our position much better for the day to be positive and be forward-looking than it would be to be a remembrance day of sorts for certain grievances in the past," he told the committee. Obed also called for the name of the new holiday to reflect all First Nations, Metis, and Inuit people.

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 to be "facing challenges" according to the federal mandate letter tracker, meaning the government is having a hard time fulfilling the commitment.

Marie Wilson, a former Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) commissioner, said that when the TRC envisioned its recommended stat holiday, it was meant to be comparable to Remembrance Day.

"It would be a solemn day for all Canadians to remember 150,000 children who attended and suffered, and thousands who died in Canada's own state-sponsored facilities," Wilson told the committee in November.

'We're stuck'

As part of its study the committee has heard from multiple Indigenous groups, including regional representatives from the Assembly of First Nations; the Indian Residential School Survivors Society; as well as labour and business organizations.

Throughout the study some MPs have vocalized their concern over not approaching a consensus on the best date for this new holiday.

MPs have repeatedly asked for witnesses’ input on which one of the two days would be best, and why.

"There's no real clear decisive date to pick, and from my perspective this bill was designed and brought forward as one national holiday, so we’re stuck on what’s in front of us," said Conservative committee member David Yurdiga during Tuesday's meeting.

"I know that decision making is very difficult. I have a lot of sympathy for this committee that is faced with quite a challenging decision…. I don't know if it's possible or not, but is it possible to have two statutory holidays? Is it possible to have June 21 recognized as the celebration of Indigenous culture, and then have another day that reflects and recognizes the severity of the treatment of Indigenous peoples?" said Ry Moran, Director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.

'Major costs for the economy'

While the deliberations over the date have played out in every meeting, there has been wide support broadly for a more officially recognized day about Indigenous people and reconciliation. Though not all stakeholders have spoken favourably about the day being a statutory holiday.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses (CFIB), and the representatives for federally-regulated transportation and communication industries opposed the new stat holiday while voicing support for the broader aim of having a dedicated day focused on Indigenous peoples. The CFIB estimates that another federal holiday would cost billions in lost productivity.

"We are supportive of reconciliation efforts and that we count Indigenous business owners among our membership. However, the introduction of a new statutory holiday would have major costs for the economy and for businesses," CFIB vice-president Monique Moreau told the committee in December. She suggested the government look at ways to mitigate those losses if it goes ahead, or consider renaming a currently existing statutory holiday.

The Canadian Taxpayers Association also supported the idea of rebranding a current stat, the August civic holiday into an Indigenous-focused occasion.

Bill C-369 would amend the Canada Labour Code to enact the new statutory holiday for federal employees and industries.

In order for this proposed new stat day to be recognized nationwide, each province and territory would have to change its laws.

The committee will continue its study of the bill and eventually move on to a clause-by-clause consideration at which point potential amendments will be proposed. The governing Liberals have the majority of the seats on the committee and it remains to be seen how, or if they'll reshape the legislation in response to the hours of testimony. Once it passes committee it will still need to be debated and passed by the House of Commons as a whole, as well as the Senate, before it becomes law.

The committee is still soliciting public input as part of its study.