By Mike Anderson
More than 100 people gathered at the Georgina Civic Centre to mark Canada’s first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
The federal statutory holiday, which will be held annually on September 30, was the result of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action #80, which urged the federal government to establish a national holiday to honour the children who died at residential schools that operated in Canada for more than 160 years.
The day also honours the survivors, families, and communities impacted by the federal policy of forced assimilation.
Speeches at the event were followed by a flag-raising and a smudging ceremony conducted by Suzanne Howes, Leslie McCue and Janet Mooney from the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation (CGIFN).
Howes, who was first to speak, made the significance of the day clear to everyone.
“Today affirms our commitment to ensure that everyone around us matters, every child matters and everyone matters,” she said.
“As I wear one of the orange shirts today, I’m thinking of the children who never came home and those who did come home as survivors that tried to live with the scars. I’m thinking of those affected by residential schools and the intergenerational trauma it’s caused for First Nations.”
“Canada is finally waking up to the reality of what happened at these schools. And as more and more unmarked graves are being found, we must all act together. So we don’t repeat the past and honour these children. I hope this day can be one of reflection, education for people all across Canada.”
Howes also read a statement from Chief Donna Big Canoe, who could not attend due to commitments on the Island.
“It is important that all Canadians take the step to educate themselves about the residential school system and the continued injustices faced by Indigenous peoples,” Chief Big Canoe wrote.
“It’s [also] important that we all pledge to make sure everyone matters and that we implement the Calls to Action and honour the treaties that have been made; this is the only way we can fully have truth and reconciliation.”
Mayor Margaret Quirk and MP Scot Davidson also made remarks.
“This day commemorates the tragedy of residential schools in Canada and their continuing impact on Indigenous communities and ensures that we in Georgina and across Canada take the time to understand the history and the legacy of residential schools,” Mayor Quirk said.
“Children taken from their homes, taken from their families, their culture, their communities. Taken, in far too many times, never to return. I like you to take a moment and just think about your own childhood, your children, your grandchildren, and how that would have impacted you.”
“Today is a day for reflection and a day for learning. For the Indigenous communities across Canada, it’s a day for healing and remembrance.”
MP Scot Davidson said that the national holiday would ensure that the history and legacy of residential schools are properly commemorated and recognized.
“For many, these horrible events are not just historical facts. The legacy of residential schools continues to have a profound, harmful and personal impact on the lives of many Indigenous Canadians, which is what makes this day all the more important,” he said.
“So let us all today look to the future together and acknowledge our past. As we raise the flag today, let this holiday serve as both an opportunity to educate ourselves and as a sombre reminder that we need to work together to ensure that everyone matters.”
While most in attendance were Town employees, there were also some local residents, including Christine Amaral, from Keswick, and her son Alex.
Amaral believes it’s essential to set aside a day for National Truth and Reconciliation, “just like there is for Remembrance Day,” she said.
“I came here and took him out of school because it was important for him to be here.”
“We’re all going in the right direction with positive steps and not looking back and being full of hate towards it. You just got to look at it and say that’s what happened. Let’s figure out how we move forward.”
Cathy Tustin, a Town employee, agrees.
“I think most people didn’t even know these things were going on the way they did. So it’s important to learn, and hopefully, people can heal from this,” she said.
After raising the CGIFN flag and lowering it to half-mast, Mayor Quirk and Howes announced that a new crosswalk, displaying ‘Every Child Matters’ and seven feathers, will be installed on Black River Rd, across from the ferry dock.
“This was brought forward from various community members, and it was embraced by the Chippewas and by the Town as a symbol, a reminder of the children taken and the tragic loss of life in residential schools,” said Mayor Quirk.
“The seven feathers represent the seven grandfather teachings, which are a set of teachings on the human conduct towards others, focusing on moral respect for all living things. And the seven guiding principles are humility, bravery, honesty, wisdom, truth, respect, and love.”
Later that morning, a smaller ceremony was held at the Link in Sutton, followed by a flag-raising in Jackson’s Point.
In Sutton, Cesar Cano, Executive Director of the Georgina Community Food Pantry, and staff from non-profits based at the Link gathered at the GCFP community garden to plant a cedar tree that commemorates the lost children.
“For First Nation’s people, cedar is very meaningful; it signifies healing. So it’s very appropriate today, as we honour the memory of the children who were lost. This is why today we chose to plant an eastern white cedar tree,” he said.
In Jackson’s Point, Steve Jacobson, Chair of the Jackson’s Point BIA, also organized a flag-raising.
At the Point, Davidson, while acknowledging the establishment of a national holiday is a crucial step, stressed the need for the federal government to adopt all of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls of Action.
“Canadians are frustrated with lack of action, and we need action. We know what the Calls of Action are. We have to get these Calls of Action done. We need the funding to flow to search the rest of the gravesites and bring these children home and close this wound,” he said.
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