Governor General Mary May Simon has some very personal reflections on the eve of Canada’s first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
As the daughter of a white father and Inuk mother, May Simon says in a statement that she was not made to attend a residential school.
She stayed behind and was home-schooled while other children were ripped away from their homes, separated from their families and sent to residential schools where they were not allowed to speak an Indigenous language or honour their culture.
May Simon, who was born in an Inuit village in northern Quebec, recalls visiting families where the absence of children was a “palpable void.”
She says she became a “stand-in, a well-loved substitute” for parents who desperately missed their own children.
Residential school survivors told their stories at a ceremony Wednesday night on Parliament Hill ahead of the inaugural Truth and Reconciliation Day.
The Peace Tower was illuminated in orange and the survivor flag was raised at half-mast in honour of residential school survivors.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he applauds the courage of survivors and acknowledged that it cannot be easy for them to tell their stories.
Canada is seen as a peace-loving place that respects the rights of people, but it is also a country that has made “huge and terrible mistakes,” Trudeau said.
“It’s harder to reflect on the truth, of the mistakes, of the evil that we did in the past.”
Reconciliation simply doesn’t mean looking back and understanding the mistakes made in the past but note that they are shaping the country even today, he said. The challenges facing First Nations such as injustice, inequality, discrimination and racism can be traced back to the decisions made generations and decades ago, he added.
Truth and Reconciliation Day is not just for Indigenous people but for all Canadians because everyone needs to learn from the choices and actions made in the past, Trudeau said.
“And all of you as you go about your daily lives, take a moment to listen to the stories of a survivor, to an Indigenous elder who shares their perspective, their experiences in this country,” he said.
“And know that that story, their story, is your story as well.”
Truth and Reconciliation Day is intended to honour the lost children and survivors of residential schools, 140 of which operated across the country from 1831 to 1998.
Some 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend the church-run schools, where many suffered physical and sexual abuse, malnutrition and neglect. More than 4,000 are believed to have died.
“We all felt it. The sorrow of missing a part of our community,” May Simon said.
“The legacy of colonization has had devastating repercussions for Indigenous peoples, including the loss of language, culture and heritage. This pain has been felt from generation to generation, and it continues today.
“These are uncomfortable truths, and often hard to accept. But the truth also unites us as a nation, brings us together to dispel anger and despair, and embrace justice, harmony and trust instead.”
In June, Parliament fast-tracked a bill making Sept. 30 a statutory annual holiday for federal workers.
The bill was passed shortly after the tragic discovery of what are believed to be the remains of 215 Indigenous children in unmarked graves at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.
Since then, unmarked graves have been discovered at several other former residential school sites in British Columbia and Saskatchewan, while other former school sites are still being explored with ground-penetrating radar.
—Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press