On September 30 we recognize Orange Shirt Day and the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. In the words of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, it is a day 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”. Part of that legacy includes the many thousands of children who did not survive the residential school system. We remember them and their families, too. All flags on campus, including the University of Toronto flag, will fly at half-mast.
The history of Orange Shirt Day is well-known – Phyllis Webstad’s traumatic story, her courage, and her leadership that sparked a national movement. This year, still reeling from the staggering revelations of unmarked graves near residential schools in British Columbia and Saskatchewan, we mark the occasion with added solemnity. We realize with profound sorrow that other such graves remain to be found and that these horrors come as no surprise to members of Indigenous communities.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was created to tell Survivors’ stories, and those of their families and communities, and to honour those who did not survive. The Commission challenged us to acknowledge the truth and history of Canada with respect to Indigenous Peoples and what that means for reconciliation.
Our own Truth and Reconciliation Steering Committee at the University of Toronto has shown us the way towards harnessing the resources of the University in attainment of that national goal. We have made progress in many areas – expanding the presence of Indigenous students, staff, faculty and librarians; incorporating Indigenous content into curricula; supporting Indigenous research programs; and creating physical spaces to honour and acknowledge Indigenous peoples, traditions, and histories on our three campuses. Reconciliation must be led by dialogue, a process of mutual engagement in which all parties learn from one another.
But so much more remains to be done. Highlighting our accomplishments does not diminish our responsibility or our resolve. Indeed, Orange Shirt Day speaks to the enduring trauma experienced by Indigenous peoples. We pause today to recognize our past, acknowledge our present – and recommit to a better future.
Meric S. Gertler