OTTAWA – The federal Liberal government wants to establish a holiday to acknowledge the dark legacy of Canada’s residential school system, and plans to use an opposition bill to make it happen.
The government has been consulting with Indigenous organizations about creating a holiday to honour survivors and raise awareness about the church-run, government-backed schools — one of the 94 recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
One government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, says Indigenous leaders still haven’t settled on whether the day should be a full-blown statutory holiday or a day of tribute that would offer some form of symbolic recognition.
The Liberals plan to move the behind-the-scenes discussion into a parliamentary forum, allowing Indigenous groups, leaders and residential school survivors to debate the idea with parliamentarians.
The government intends to back a private member’s bill introduced by NDP MP Georgina Jolibois that currently proposes establishing a statutory holiday on June 21, which is National Indigenous Peoples Day.
A spokesman for Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez says the government has committed to fulfilling the TRC’s calls to action, and plans to do just that.
“Call to Action 80 asks the government of Canada to establish a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation to honour the survivors of residential schools,” said spokesman Simon Ross.
“That’s exactly what we will do, and we will do that in partnership with Indigenous Peoples.”
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said First Nations support a national day to “recognize the tragic and painful legacy of residential schools” and respect and remember the “too many children taken from their homes and families,” while also honouring survivors and their families.
“The residential schools era is indeed a dark chapter, and we must never forget,” he said in a statement.
“A day dedicated to remembering and honouring the students of residential schools will help to increase public understanding of our shared history, and better inform our work together going forward. It is an important part of reconciliation and First Nations need to be involved in choosing an appropriate date.”
The government-funded, church-run residential schools operated for more than a century. Indigenous children were ripped away from their families, usually starting in late September, and sent to schools where they endured widespread sexual, emotional and physical abuse.
The previous Conservative government issued a formal apology in 2008.
If Parliament did approve a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation as a statutory holiday, it would only apply to federally regulated workplaces — the civil service, marine ports, airports, airlines and telecommunications companies.
Provinces and territories would have to amend their existing labour codes to establish any additional day off.
Jolibois was cautiously optimistic that the government wouldn’t radically amend her bill to create a statutory holiday on June 21, and called on the government to provide clarity as soon as possible.
“The conclusion that I have is that (Prime Minister Justin Trudeau) is playing politics,” she said. “I’m very cautious because I have so many questions of the federal government.”
Debate on the bill will resume in the fall after the House of Commons reconvenes.
Last year, a majority of MPs voted to give Remembrance Day the same legal status as Canada Day.
Nov. 11 is a holiday for federally regulated workers, and all other provincially regulated workers outside of Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador.
The Royal Canadian Legion has been a critic of making Remembrance Day a legal holiday, fearing that public attitudes towards Nov. 11 would change and obscure the solemn local ceremonies that mark the occasion each year.