September 30 marks Orange Shirt Day and the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. A day to honour the victims and survivors of the residential and day school system that operated in Canada until the late 1990s. A call for collective and sustained commitment to redress the immediate and lasting harms inflicted upon First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children, their families, and the generations who followed. The University of Toronto will recognize Orange Shirt Day and the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation with a tri-campus event on Friday, September 29. “The Survivors’ Flag” has been raised on all three campuses.
The Honourable Murray Sinclair, member of the Peguis First Nation, a former Senator, and former Chief Commissioner of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), has described residential schools as “centres of abuse.” They were part of a comprehensive strategy to eradicate Indigenous culture, traditions, and languages from Canadian society that included banning potlatch ceremonies, the wearing of traditional regalia, and the use of sweat lodges. This strategy supported the already widespread practice of seizing land and extracting natural resources for the benefit of the Crown and settler colonies. Residential and day schools were “schools” only in name; on a massive scale, they robbed children of the chance to learn the life skills, language, and traditional knowledge nurtured by their ancestors for millennia.
There is no way to quantify the trauma suffered by the victims and survivors of residential and day schools. Yet this trauma has been shared—as Phyllis Webstad did by recalling the childhood experience that gives Orange Shirt Day its name. I urge non-Indigenous members of the U of T community to seek out this and other survivors’ stories to gain greater knowledge, to foster deeper compassion, and to strengthen your resolve to engage in work that restores mutual respect and understanding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. The tri-campus event on September 29 will support your learning by offering a panel discussion on making Residential School Survivors’ stories accessible at the University of Toronto Libraries. Moreover, the tri-campus training offered to all students and employees through the Office of Indigenous Initiatives is an excellent place to begin—and continue—a lifelong learning journey to support local and widespread change that advances reconciliation.
The Annual Progress Report produced by the Office of Indigenous Initiatives offers a wealth of evidence that, through the efforts of Indigenous and non-Indigenous community members across our campuses, U of T is making this University a place where Indigenous students, staff, librarians, and faculty want to learn, work, and teach. The new Ziibiing landscape project at the centre of St. George campus joins projects at UTSC and UTM to create spaces for ceremony, the sharing of traditional knowledges, and Indigenous-based research. Ongoing efforts to increase the number of Indigenous faculty create additional opportunities for research, learning, and mentorship supporting Indigenous perspectives and worldviews. The expansion of Indigenous-focused curriculum, meanwhile, enriches a growing number of disciplines.
These are necessary and hopeful changes. We can—and will—do so much more. As we approach Orange Shirt Day and the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, let us recommit ourselves to making change, individually and in partnership, across our three campuses.
The Indigenous Cultural Competency Training series for all students, staff, faculty, and librarians includes the following sessions: Speaking Our Truths: The Journey Towards Reconciliation (Part 1 and Part 2); Reconciliation: Walking the Path of Indigenous Allyship; and Reflecting on Land Acknowledgements. Employees can register for this training through the Centre for Learning, Leadership, and Culture (LLC). Students can register for training through the Career Learning Network (CLNX).