New National Day for Truth and Reconciliation ushered in with mixed reviews from Edmonton Indigenous community

EDMONTON –

As Canadians prepare to observe the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, one residential school survivor hopes the new holiday will help the country heal together.

More than five decades ago, Harvey Burnstick spent time at St. John’s Indian Residential School in Wabasca Lake, Alta.

That residential school closed in 1966, but still, Burnstick has been thinking about his time there a lot lately. 

Discoveries of unmarked graves at former residential schools across Canada earlier this year brought the subject into the national spotlight and for survivors like Burnstick, old memories.  

“All these stories coming up now,” he told CTV News Edmonton on Wednesday. “It’s starting to sink in.” 

Burnstick said he saw other students try to escape the residential school, but he never did. A fact he said he was happy about after seeing the punishments his peers had to endure when they were caught.

Now, the residential school survivor wants to use the knowledge of the past to help improve the future.

“I’m not sure what we can do to go back and fix things, but we can move on, right? Maybe we can heal together,” said Burnstick. 

‘IT SHOULDN’T BE A HOLIDAY’

While Burnstick remains hopeful the new holiday will serve as a source for healing, one Indigenous elder in Edmonton says when it comes to true reconciliation for her people, it misses the mark. 

“To have the words ‘truth’ and ‘ reconciliation’ together, at this time, doesn’t work for me,” Taz Augustine told CTV News Edmonton.

“I think it should be a national day of acknowledging genocide,” she said. “For us Indigenous people, it’s the national day of grieving and sorrow.”

The idea for having a day to acknowledge the legacy of residential schools and the trauma caused by them was one of 94 recommendations in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report, which was released in 2015. 

When Bill C-5 passed with unanimous support in Ottawa on June 3, the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation was created, giving federally regulated employees a paid holiday on Sept. 30.

“It shouldn’t be a holiday per se, or a day off for people to celebrate or do things that they feel like doing,” said Augustine. 

NOT A PROVINCIAL HOLIDAY IN ALBERTA

Alberta is among several provinces not recognizing Sept. 30 as a statutory holiday. Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario have also made that choice.

Last month, the province said it’s up to individual employers whether to implement the holiday.

Augustine said she’s glad Alberta will not recognize it.

“I haven’t sat and talked to the premier himself to understand why he’s not acknowledging it, but part of me says I’m glad he isn’t,” she said. “It should be a national day of mourning and so the title itself is offensive to many of us.”

The Indigenous elder said while the federal holiday has its flaws, it’s at least a step in the right direction.

“It’s a seed planted. If it raises the questions in people’s mind of, ‘Why are we doing this day, what’s this day?’ If it at least raises the question in people’s minds it’s a seed planted.”

On Wednesday, the executive director of the Confederacy of Treaty Six Nations told CTV News Edmonton she’s disappointed the province has decided against observing the holiday.

“I just think the province has a lot of work to do with respect to Indigenous relationships,” Doreen Cardinal said.

According to Cardinal, simply acknowledging the holiday isn’t enough.

“I don’t want it to just become lowering flags and wearing Orange Shirts. We actually have to do some kind of action.”

She suggested Canadians could honour the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation by reading the Treaty Six Agreement, as well as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action.

As for Burnstick, he’s glad the day now exists.

“I’m very honoured that the people recognized it,” he said. “I know some people don’t like to hear about it, but it happened.”

CITY WORKERS, POLICE, SCHOOLS OBSERVING HOLIDAY

While the Government of Alberta will not recognize Sept. 30 as a provincial statutory holiday, some non-federally regulated employers in the province will.

Last week, the City of Edmonton announced it would observe the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. City employees will be given a day of leave with pay.

Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson said the decision is part of the city’s commitment to the Indigenous community to recognize past wrongs and build bridges for the future.

The Edmonton Police Service, Edmonton Public Library, and the City Auditor will also provide employees with a day of leave with pay.  

Edmonton Public Schools held an event on Wednesday morning meant to honour the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation.

Public and Catholic schools in Edmonton will be closed on Thursday so staff and students can observe the holiday.

With files from CTV News Edmonton’s Dan Grummett & Kyra Markov

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