On Friday, September 30, to honour the experiences of residential school survivors, the University of Toronto held an Orange Shirt Day and National Day for Truth and Reconciliation Commemoration in the Great Hall at Hart House, attended by over 150 students, librarians, faculty and staff. Many others watched remotely on a YouTube live stream.
Both days of recognition—one Indigenous-led and the other established by the federal government—call for remembrance, reflection, and action around the history and devastating legacy of Canada’s Indian Residential School System on Indigenous Peoples and communities. The event was organized by the Office of Indigenous Initiatives in partnership with First Nation’s House, and was sponsored by Hart House, as well as the Orange Shirt Steering Committee which included staff and faculty representatives from across the campuses.
During opening remarks Kelly Hannah-Moffat, Vice President, People Strategy, Equity & Culture, acknowledged “the profound and lasting damage that Canadian residential schools inflicted on Indigenous children, their families, and the generations that followed them.” She also reaffirmed the University’s steadfast commitment to implementing the University of Toronto’s 34 Calls to Action, identified by Answering the Call: Wecheehetowin, the final report of the Steering Committee for U of T’s response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada five years ago.
Alex Gillespie, Vice President & Principal, U of T Mississauga, then shared a Land Acknowledgement which spoke to the Indigenous history of the land upon which U of T resides and the “responsibilities embedded in the living history of this place.”
Introduced by Giselle Del Valle, an Indigenous second-year psychological health sciences student at U of T Scarborough, the keynote address was given by Brenda Wastasecoot, Assistant Professor, Centre for Indigenous Studies.
In this poignant and emotional presentation, Wastasecoot used a memory map from her doctoral thesis, “The Nikis Story is the Story of Canada: Reflecting on the Impacts of the Indian Residential Schools”, to tell the story of her family’s home and history in Churchill, Manitoba.
The youngest of 11 siblings, Wasteasecoot was the only one not to attend residential school after the federal government granted the provinces the power to make residential schools no longer compulsory. Wastasecoot described how she, her cousins and peers would wave their siblings goodbye at the train station, and then be left to contend with the poverty, alcoholism and violence, especially towards women, that were the aftermath of the residential school system. She recounted the “struggle to feel worthy of respect and kindness,” and her childhood feelings of hopelessness in the face of such unrelenting adversity.
In response to questions from attendees, Wastasecoot also spoke to the importance of Indigenous advocates in academia, such as the late Lee Maracle, and of services such as First Nations House Indigenous Student Services at U of T, which can help Indigenous students who may be struggling to adapt to the university system. “When you come to First Nations House”, she said, “you’re going to come home – to your people and your family.”
John Monahan, Warden of Hart House, concluded the event by asking the U of T community to reflect on how it can continue to “counter the weight of history with the light of justice, compassion and kindness.”