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Universities mark National Day for Truth and Reconciliation

Some university campuses will be closed for the new statutory holiday.

BY LAURA BEAULNE-STUEBING | SEP 29 2021

Canada’s first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, a new federal statutory holiday, takes place on Sept. 30. The day is meant to honour and commemorate the Indigenous children that were lost to, or who are survivors of, the Indian Residential School System, and to remember the painful history and ongoing impacts of residential schools.

The holiday, which is also being observed by some of the country’s provinces and territories (Manitoba and Nova Scotia; the governments of Newfoundland and Labrador and Northwest Territories have adopted the holiday for public service workers), coincides with Orange Shirt Day, a grassroots, Indigenous-led annual day to commemorate the residential school experience. The story of the orange shirt comes from Phyllis Webstad, a survivor of the St. Joseph’s Residential School in Williams Lake, B.C., whose brand-new orange shirt — purchased by her grandmother for the young girl’s first day of school — was taken from her. “The colour orange has always reminded me of that and how my feelings didn’t matter, how no one cared and how I felt like I was worth nothing,” Ms. Webstad wrote. “All of us little children were crying and no one cared.”

Orange Shirt Day takes place on the last day of September because it’s the time of year Indigenous children were taken from their homes to residential schools. The day is also an opportunity “to set the stage for anti-racism and anti-bullying policies for the coming school year,” says the movement’s website. “It is an opportunity for First Nations, local governments, schools and communities to come together in the spirit of reconciliation and hope for generations of children to come.”

Universities across Canada are marking both the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation and Orange Shirt Day in various ways throughout the week — from webinars to elder-led ceremonies to closing down campus for the stat holiday. What all these events have in common is that participants will be encouraged to wear orange shirts to honour the experiences of Indigenous peoples and show Indigenous children that they matter.

Phyllis Webstad.

Note: this isn’t a complete list of events and programming. Check with your university for more information about what’s happening in your community.

British Columbia

The province of British Columbia hasn’t made Sept. 30 a holiday, but instead deemed it a day of commemoration, and most postsecondary institutions will be closed for the day.

On Sept. 27, the University of British Columbia’s Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre (IRSHDC) held a “Returning Home and Pathways to Reconciliation” film screening and conversation with Phyllis Webstad. The special presentation included a Musqueam welcome and opening remarks by Sto:lo scholar Jo-ann Archibald and IRSHDC director Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond.

At the University of Northern British Columbia, vice-provost of Indigenous initiatives Henry Harder and manager of the office of Indigenous initiatives Brandon Price will host a 90-minute Truth and Reconciliation Talking Circle over Zoom on Sept. 30 at 10 a.m. PST. The event will include presentations from UNBC faculty and a dance performance.

Other B.C. university events include:

  • Orange Shirt Day film screenings at the University of Victoria.
  • An in-person opening ceremony for Truth and Reconciliation Week at Simon Fraser University’s Burnaby campus. The ceremony included drumming, singing and prayers from elders.
  • An Orange Shirt Day intergenerational march by many of UBC’s STEM faculties on Sept. 30.
  • At Vancouver Island University’s Cowichan campus, a discussion with Eddy Charlie, a member of Cowichan Tribes and survivor at Kuper Island Residential School, about his journey through postsecondary education.
  • An event called Hearts Across Campus at VIU’s Nanaimo location. The event is an opportunity for members of the university’s community to create hearts with messages about reconciliation. The hearts will be displayed throughout campus.
  • A campus-wide day of learning at Trinity Western University with speakers Grand Chief Clarence Pennier and Chief Andrew Victor, Sto:lo First Nations.

The Prairies

Although Alberta has not made Sept. 30 a holiday, there will be no classes at the University of Alberta on that day in observance of the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. In the spirit of reconciliation, the university is also holding free application days from Sept. 30 to Oct. 6, 2021 for First Nations, Métis and Inuit students. Application fees will be waived for students with eligible Indigenous identity documentation who complete an application to the U of A during those dates. The U of A is encouraging all members of its community to wear an orange shirt on Sept. 30 – and if they do, to take a photo, use the hashtag #ualbertaosd2021 and share “Why I Wear and Orange Shirt” to Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

Several in-person events at Mount Royal University have been postponed or cancelled due to the difficult COVID-19 situation in Alberta, but many are still going forward. On Sept. 29, Linda Manyguns and Shane Williams, manager, grounds and facilities management, will unveil four garden locations where the university will plant pre-contact seeds and tobacco next spring. The MRU campus will also be lit up in orange on Sept. 30.

The University of Saskatchewan announced in the summer that it would offer all faculty, staff and students a day off every year for the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in the hope that the campus community will use the time to learn and reflect. On Sept. 28, two-sprit identifying individuals are invited to a student union pride centre event, Two-Spirit Smudge and Discussion, that aims to support the queer and Indigenous student population at the university. On the evening of Sept. 30, Peter Stoicheff, the university’s president, and elders Florence Highway and Evelyn Linklater will host a campus lighting event in recognition of truth and reconciliation.

Sept. 30 is a paid closure day for University of Manitoba faculty, staff and students. The university, as well as the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation housed at the U of M, are offering a number of opportunities to learn and reflect, on the days leading up to and on the day itself. The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation is collaborating with First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities to produce a broadcast special in partnership with APTN, CBC/Radio-Canada, Insight Productions and Canadian Heritage at 8 p.m. ET on Sept. 30.

Other events or initiatives at institutions in the prairies include:

  • For U of A alumni, a panel discussion and Q&A session to discuss steps all Canadians can take to build positive relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.
  • An online MRU event featuring guest speaker Ruth Scalp Lock, an elder from the Siksika Nation who attended the Crowfood Indian Residential School. Ms. Lock is the author of My Name is Shield Woman – a hard road to healing, vision and leadership.
  • The lighting of the University of Winnipeg campus in orange from Sept. 27 to Sept. 30.
  • A drop-in Orange Shirt Day button-making workshop for University of Lethbridge students on Sept. 29.
  • An Indigenous-inspired menu at Brandon University food services from Sept. 27 to Sept 30.
  • An afternoon of sharing and connection hosted by the U of C’s faculty of nursing, featuring mural unveilings, discussion of residential schools and missing and murdered Indigenous women and conversation about Indigenous nursing initiatives.
  • A Concordia University of Edmonton-led virtual event on Sept. 27 that aimed to facilitate conversation about the history and legacy of residential schools with survivor Harold Cook and resolution support program manager Rocky Ward ahead of the closure of university’s campus on Sept. 30.
  • The closure of Université de Saint-Boniface in Winnipeg on Sept. 30.
  • A webinar with Lillian Gadwa-Crier, assistant professor in the faculty of arts at MacEwan University, to discuss Indian Residential Schools and their continued impact on Indigenous peoples.
  • An online event facilitated by Cameron Adams, a University of Winnipeg student, who will discuss his journey learning his nēhinawēwin language.
  • An Indigenous writer’s panel, featuring writers Eden Robinson, Richard Van Camp and Lee Maracle, hosted by the University of Calgary’s vice-provost, Indigenous engagement, Michael Hart. The event, organized by the U of C’s office of Indigenous engagement in partnership with the Calgary Public Library, will have the three authors share their literature on intergenerational trauma and Indigenous resilience.
Photo courtesy of Thompson Rivers University.

Ontario

Algoma University has cancelled classes on Sept. 30 to provide all members of its community a chance to learn, reflect and take action. The university’s Sault Ste. Marie campus, along with the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre (SRSC), is on the site of the former Shingwauk Residential School. The SRSC, Anishinaabe Academic Resource Centre and the Shingwauk Anishinaabe Students’ Association are partnering for an Orange Shirt Day event at Algoma, which will include in-person and virtual tours of the Shingwauk Residential School site, a community art installation and conversations with survivors.

Members of Ryerson University’s community are invited to participate in the opening of the university’s Orange Shirt Day activities and a virtual tour of the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre on Sept. 29. This event, held over Zoom, will include several guest speakers from people such as: Joanne Okimawininew Dallaire, elder (Ke Shay Hayo) and senior advisor, Indigenous relations and reconciliation, at Ryerson; Mohamed Lachemi, Ryerson’s president and vice-chancellor; and Maddy Bifano, community access assistant for the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre at Algoma.

Western University professor Cody Groat, who is a Kanyen’kehaka citizen and Six Nations band member, will be giving a free public lecture on the Residential School System and his family’s lived experience for the Western community on Sept. 30. As of Monday, Sept. 27, there were 1,600 people registered for the event. A sacred fire will also be lit on campus near the music building and Talbot College on Sept. 30 to honour Indigenous teachings and acknowledge the emotional labour that comes with working within colonial spaces. Non-Indigenous allies are welcome to attend the fire from noon until dusk.

Other university initiatives in Ontario include:

  • A beginner beading session for the Ryerson community facilitated by Cher Trudeau, who is an Anishinaabe and Mohawk artist and staff member.
  • A virtual tour of the former Mohawk Institute Residential School by McMaster University’s Indigenous studies program.
  • Reconciliation pledge booths to allow Ontario Tech University students and employees to pledge their commitment to reconciliation in writing.
  • Radio Western’s National Day for Truth and Reconciliation radio special, which can be heard live on air or online at 2 p.m. ET on Sept. 30.
  • a York University virtual event on Sept. 30 featuring panelists from across the university community to talk about what reconciliation in action means to them.
  • A presentation for Carleton University’s community from alumnus Tim O’Loan, who served as the advisor to Truth and Reconciliation Commission commissioner Murray Sinclair, to educate, enlighten and inspire greater understanding of reconciliation.
  • A New Future in Education, a discussion about the unsettling truths that need to be taught in the classroom, hosted by the University of Windsor and moderated by Kat Pasquach, the university’s Aboriginal outreach and retention coordinator.
  • An Orange Shirt Day candlelight vigil at the NUSU Student Centre courtyard at Nipissing University on Sept. 29.
  • A virtual event for the University of Toronto community that features a keynote address from author Lee Maracle.
  • A presentation on Sept. 29 from Lakehead University professor Scott Hamilton and Indigenous forensic expert Kona Williams, who were invited by the Northern Ontario School of Medicine to talk about gravesites at residential schools.
  • An elder-led ceremony at the University of Guelph on Sept. 30 to mark Orange Shirt Day and the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

Quebec

To mark the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation and kick off a speaker series of equity, diversity and inclusion webinars, Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières has invited experts to discuss how residential schools influence the way Indigenous peoples see education and schooling. These experts are Gabrielle Vachon Laurent, cultural agent at the Native Friendship Centre of Trois-Rivières; Mélissa Coutu, education liaison officer at the Native Friendship Centre of Trois-Rivières; and Sivane Hirsch, professor in the department of education sciences at UQTR. The event takes place over Zoom on Sept. 29.

McGill University is hosting programming throughout the day on Sept. 30. The day starts off with an event called We Will Walk Together/Skàtne Entewathahìta, which is a series of discussions and performances led by elder Geraldine Standup (Traditional Healer, Kahnawa:ke) on the theme of hope and healing. At noon, Wanda Gabriel, assistant professor of social work at McGill, will give a talk about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Later that day, the school of social work, Indigenous Access McGill and the centre for research on children and families host a teach-in denouncing the continued overrepresentation of First Nations children in Canadian child welfare. To wrap up programming, McGill’s faculty of management will host a virtual storytelling event.

Quebec universities are highlighting reconciliation and marking the day in other ways, including:

  • An event hosted by the Université de Sherbrooke’s faculty of education on Sept. 30 to unveil a work of art by Indigenous artist Christine Sioui-Wawanoloath.
  • Lighting up the main pavilion at Polytechnique Montréal in orange on Sept. 30.
  • A panel discussion offered by Concordia University’s office of Indigenous directions featuring voices of Indigenous staff, faculty and students.
  • An in-person and online event at Université du Québec à Chicoutimi to remember the history and trauma of residential schools and remember those who are missing. The event is a conversation with Anne Rock, a residential school survivor, and Jacinthe Dion, a professor of child and adolescent clinical and developmental psychology. Masks must be worn to attend in person.
  • A virtual Indigenous health workshop offered by the First Peoples’ House, the Indigenous health professions program, the global health programs and the department of epidemiology, biostatistics and occupational health at McGill on Sept. 30.

The East Coast

Since Nova Scotia is recognizing the annual National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, provincial government offices, publics schools and child care centres will be closed on Sept. 30 (although private businesses can choose to remain open). On Sept. 30, offices at Dalhousie University will be closed and classes will not be taking place. In preparation for the day, the university is offering a speaker series during the week – the first event is focused on “Truth,” the second on “Reconciliation” and the third on Sept. 29 looks at “Truth and reconciliation in practice.”

Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, which will be closed on Sept. 30, is offering programming throughout the week. On Sept. 28 and 29, all students, faculty and staff are welcome to come place an orange handprint on the tipi at the university’s Indigenous ceremonial space to recognize the children who did not make it home. Also on Sept. 29, as part of the President’s Speaker Series, elder William Nevin of Elsipogtog First Nation will give a talk at Convocation Hall. Masks and proof of vaccination will be required to attend.

Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador will also be closed on Sept. 30. On Sept. 29, the university will mark Orange Shirt Day across all campuses and locations, and will hold an in-person event at its St. John’s campus. Landmarks at the St. John’s and Corner Brook campuses will be lit up in orange.

Additional initiatives at East Coast universities include:

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