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Reconciliation isn’t built in a day — but it would be a start

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The ambivalence is overwhelming.

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Opinion

The ambivalence is overwhelming.

In 2021, the federal government declared Sept. 30 as a national statutory holiday for Canadians to recognize the legacies of the residential school system.

This fulfilled call to action No. 80 of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Its goal: to “ensure that public commemoration of the history and legacy of residential schools remains a vital component of the reconciliation process.”

In 2021, the federal government declared Sept. 30 as a national statutory holiday for Canadians to recognize the legacies of the residential school system. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation coincides with Orange Shirt Day — an event created in 2013 to honour the experiences of residential school survivor Phyllis Jack Webstad.

For nearly a decade, millions of Canadians have worn orange shirts on Sept. 30 at workplaces and schools, and marches, sporting events, other events across the country.

Last year’s national statutory holiday was supposed to build on this momentum, allowing people a day off to join with family in a nationwide moment of reconciliation.

Only, the provincial governments — which regulate around 80 per cent of Canada’s workforce — haven’t got on board.

As of this week, only Prince Edward Island and the Northwest Territories had legally recognized it as a statutory holiday — closing government offices, schools, and non-essential public services. Nunavut is soon to pass legislation, too.

Others “acknowledge” the day in a potpourri of ways.

British Columbia calls it a day of “commemoration” and reduces government hours. Alberta names it an “optional general holiday,” like Boxing Day and Easter Monday.

Saskatchewan lowers flags on provincial buildings and changes lights at Wascana Centre to orange. Newfoundland and Nova Scotia close schools and government offices.

Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Yukon all make nice statements but generally do nothing.

This has created an uneven, confusing and indecisive national response to the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

Frankly, Canada might have been better off before this “national holiday.” At least we all generally felt united when we put on an orange shirt before work or school.

Meanwhile, Manitoba will release provincial employees and close schools Sept. 30, but says it is waiting on any future decision.

In a news release Thursday, Labour Minister Reg Helwer announced: “Legislation officially making the day a statutory holiday in Manitoba has not yet been introduced, as consultations with Indigenous leadership, residential school survivors and other stakeholders continue.”

The government claims it has consulted with several Indigenous governments, organizations and community groups — as well as my father, former senator Murray Sinclair.

You know, the former commissioner of the TRC who co-wrote call to action No. 80. I wonder what he thinks about making Sept. 30 a provincial statutory holiday?

Consultation with Indigenous communities is not what’s holding up legislation to make Sept. 30 a statutory holiday honouring truth and reconciliation.

Ambivalence is.

Most Manitobans, regardless of government recognition, are going to recognize the importance of Sept. 30. The fact that this province is roughly one-fifth Indigenous and the rest live beside, work with or are married to Indigenous people guarantees this.

There is no option to “recognize” the legacies of residential schools in Manitoba because we are fully and completely immersed in them.

Still, if Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative government passes legislation to make Sept. 30 a statutory holiday, it risks alienating itself from other Conservative-led provinces and local voters who don’t think the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation matters.

For a provincial Tory government in need of allies and low in the polls this results in a lot of ambivalence surrounding Sept. 30. Add in a slow-moving and controversial record surrounding reconciliation and ambivalence starts to look like resistance.

Making Sept. 30 a provincial statutory holiday should be a no-brainer in Manitoba.

When a queen in a far off country dies, the federal government, five provinces (not Manitoba) and two territories will mark it Monday with a declared day of mourning, closing offices and schools.

Apparently, however, when it comes to recognizing the experiences of Indigenous relatives and how residential schools impact everyone, provinces have to be “convinced” such a day matters.

Reconciliation certainly won’t happen in a day, but if much of Canada won’t take time to try, how can this country do it the rest of the year?

niigaan.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Niigaan Sinclair

Niigaan Sinclair
Columnist

Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.

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