Orange Shirt Day proposed as national day for Truth and Reconciliation

Heart Garden ceremony at Mildred Hall School
A sign leans at the back of the school's 'heart garden' planted in honour of those who died at residential schools. (2015)
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Wednesday, Sept. 30 marks Orange Shirt Day, a day for reflection and remembering the Residential School system that killed more than 6,000 children across Canada.

“Yesterday I had a hard day, because that trauma is still in me as a former student. The hurt is still there. The guilt, the shame, the anger,” said Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya. “It’s part of me that I do not want to talk about, because of the trauma I suffered.”

“For me and all our survivors today, we need to recognize their shame — their hurt of having one society tell us who we’re not, and try and make us into somebody who we aren’t.”

More than 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children were taken from their families and placed in schools designed to re-educate and assimilate Indigenous children into Canadian society.

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That makes the risk of dying in residential schools as an Indigenous child, one in 25, greater than the risk of dying in World War II as a Canadian soldier, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

There were fifteen residential schools at some point in NT’s history. The last one in the country closed in 1996 more than one hundred years after the first was opened in 1884.

Yesterday, Justin Trudeau announced legislation was put forward in parliament to make Sept. 30 a national day for Truth and Reconciliation, something he has promised since 2017.

And together in partnership with Indigenous peoples, we will continue to advance reconciliation and right the wrongs from this dark and shameful chapter,” Trudeau wrote in a post to Twitter.

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Yakeleya said he was happy to hear the federal government had proposed a bill to formally recognize Orange Shirt Day, and called on the GNWT to do the same.

He also called on churches in Canada to make a statement in recognition of their contribution to the residential school system. 

Yakeleya has been part of an all-party working group along with representatives from the federal government and the churches in Canada to produce a statement on residential schools. The statement, which has been through several draft, should be released in a couple of months, Yakeleya added.

In a statement, Premier Caroline Cochrane said Orange Shirt Day is about respecting reconciliation’s calls to action and the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls Inquiry’s calls to justice, to “make right the decades of colonial oppression against Indigenous people across Canada because of the residential school system.”

“In the Northwest Territories, most of us know someone who attended a residential school, and we have all felt the impact of the legacy it left, and will for generations to come,” Cochrane said in a statement.

“This day is about standing with survivors, and committing ourselves to meaningful reconciliation,” she said. “It’s our duty to ensure we support healing, respect the rights of Indigenous people, and work towards a future where Indigenous languages and cultures are able to thrive.”

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