While Canada gets ready to mark the third annual National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on Saturday, Sept. 30, here’s what you need to know about the day’s significance, Orange Shirt Day and the lasting impacts of the residential school system on Indigenous communities.

What is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission?

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established in 2008 – as part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement – with the purpose of documenting the history of the Canadian residential school system as well as its harmful and continued effects on Indigenous peoples.

Between 2008 and 2015, the TRC travelled across Canada and heard the testimonies of more than 6,500 individuals from Indigenous communities. The TRC also hosted seven national events to educate Canadians about the history and legacy of the residential schools system. In 2015, the TRC released a report with their findings, which documented the truth about the residential school system and included 94 Calls To Action (or recommendations) of what Canada needs to do to achieve true reconciliation.

The recommendations specify an action plan for all areas of Canadian society, ranging from healthcare to media to education. One of the report’s Calls to Action, specifically number 80, called for the federal government to establish “a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation to honour survivors, their families and communities, and ensure that public commemoration of the history and legacy of residential schools remains a vital component of the reconciliation process.”

A total of 13 Calls to Action have been completed by the federal government in the eight years since TRC released its findings, according to a December 2022 report by First Nations-led research centre Yellowhead Institute.

What is the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation?

The day is a direct response to The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action 80, which called for a federal statutory day of commemoration to acknowledge those affected by residential schools and to educate Canadians.

The House of Commons unanimously supported legislation in June 2021 to make Sept. 30 a federally recognized holiday to mark the history of and intergenerational trauma caused by the residential school system.

The day comes at a critical juncture in history after the findings of unmarked burial sites of former residential-school students across the country touched off an outpouring of support from Canadians. The discovery of the burial sites was deemed by many politicians to be a moment of reckoning for the country and its need to come to terms with what happened in residential schools and the cascading effects the system has on the lives of Indigenous people today.

What is Orange Shirt Day?

The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation coincides with Orange Shirt Day, a movement that began on Sept. 30, 2013, when residential school survivor Phyllis Webstad from the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation opened up about her trauma caused by residential schools.

Forty years prior, Webstad arrived for her first day of residential school wearing a new orange shirt, bought by her grandmother, but school officials stripped her of her clothing and confiscated it.

Orange Shirt Day functions to raise awareness about Indigenous children who had their culture and freedoms ripped away from them, to honour the victims of residential schools, and to reinforce the message that “Every Child Matters.”

When did the last residential school close?

More than 139 residential schools operated in Canada between the 1800s and 1996, when the last one was closed. More than 150,000 Indigenous children – First Nations, Inuit and Métis – attended these schools. Many of those were subjected to physical and sexual abuse, as well as harsh conditions. More than 6,000 children are estimated to have died in residential schools.

There were 138 residential schools reviewed by the TRC, highlighted in the map below. Most of the school buildings have been demolished, but some were converted to other uses: The Mohawk Institute Residential School in Brantford, Ont., is reopening in 2024 as an educational and tourism facility, Woodland Cultural Centre, after a restoration organized by survivors, historians and museum consultants.

Indigenous people have long suspected that former residential schools still had unmarked graveyards that hid their horrific human cost. During the summer of 2021, hundreds of such graves were reported as First Nations used ground-penetrating radar, archival detective work and the help of experts to find the remains of long-lost loved ones. The burials brought the horrors of Canada’s residential school system to light, and rekindled Canadians’ conversations about the colonial legacy and reconciliation.

“The trauma Canada’s residential school system inflicted on Indigenous people has left spiritual wounds. No family is left untouched,” writes Tanya Talaga, who visited the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation a year after the Kamloops unmarked graves’ discovery.

What are Indigenous groups and leaders calling on Canadians to do?

As non-Indigenous people in Canada navigate the best way to honour survivors and their families, educators and residential school survivors offer their advice on what can be done to mark the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

Dr. Meghan Beals, a physician and one of five young Indigenous leaders who were in Ottawa last year to speak to a Senate committee ahead of the federal statutory holiday, said the day should include a moment of silence. She suggested that, at 10 a.m., people could take a moment of silence “for the children who have been found, or for lost individuals.”

Another way Canadians can share their support is by supporting local Indigenous businesses. Experts say it is important to take an extra step to research verified Indigenous vendors and understand where the money goes:

  • Look for Indigenous vendors that pledge to donate the proceeds from sales of orange T-shirts to groups that raise awareness about the residential school survivors such as the Orange Shirt Society — which also lists official retailers on its website — or Indian Residential School Survivors’ Society.
  • A simple internet search can help you spot a counterfeit item passing for Indigenous art. While most Indigenous products, including orange T-shirts, come with a label, customers should feel encouraged to ask the business owners about the products, sourcing of materials and traditions involved in making the item.
  • Growing online marketplaces for Indigenous art and products are helping connect rural vendors with urban markets. Spend some more time checking the sites offering authentic Indigenous work and T-shirts, and don’t forget to ask questions about where it is coming from and where the dollar is going.

Canadians are also encouraged to wear an orange shirt and display an orange light inside or outside your window to show solidarity.

Is the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation a national holiday in Canada?

The statutory holiday applies to all federal employees and workers in federally regulated workplaces. All federally regulated industries and workplaces will be closed, including banks, post offices and public services.

However, the majority of provinces and territories – with the exception of New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut – have not followed the federal government’s move to make the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation a statutory holiday for its workers. British Columbia has also introduced legislation in February to make Sept. 30 a statutory holiday.

Some schools across Canada will also be closed on either the Friday before or the Monday after National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. Schools will be closed this year in British Columbia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, Northwest Territories, Yukon, Nunavut, and select school districts in Alberta and Saskatchewan.

How will Canada mark this year’s National Day for Truth and Reconciliation?

Communities and local municipalities across Canada will be holding events, walks, film screenings and gatherings to honour the third annual National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

Landmarks such as The Peace Tower at Parliament Hill in Ottawa and the Toronto sign will be illuminated orange from 7 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 30 to sunrise on Sunday, Oct. 1. The flags at most city facilities in Ottawa and across Canada will be lowered to half-mast. The Survivors Flag will also be flown half-mast at federal, provincial and municipal buildings across Canada.

Leading up to Sept. 30, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation will host a series of virtual lunch-and-learn sessions throughout the week. The centre also offers a week-long virtual educational program open to all schools across Canada. A national commemorative gathering will also be broadcast live from Parliament Hill on Saturday, Sept. 30.

Learn the history of Indigenous People in Canada

  • University of Alberta offers a free, online Indigenous Canada course that, from a historical and critical perspective, explores the complex experiences Indigenous Peoples face today
  • The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation has a trove of records, mini-docs, maps and resources intended for learning and dialogue about the truths of residential school survivors

The Globe and Mail, September 29, 2023