In recognition of Canada’s first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on Sept. 30, Pique asked Kúkwpi7 Skalúlmecw Lil’wat Nation Chief Dean Nelson to pen a personal essay on what the day means to him and what he hopes it will mean to all Canadians. Following that is a reported feature by Megan Lalonde.
Pique respectfully works on the shared and unceded territories of the L’il’wat7úl and Skwxwú7mesh Peoples, and we honour their rich and distinct history, culture and language.
One of my priorities when I was elected to be the Political Chief of the Lil’wat Nation was to complete spirit retrievals at all the residential schools attended by Lil’wat Nation citizens. Spirit retrievals are ceremonial and designed to bring the spirits of those who did return from residential schools back to their traditional territory and allow them to rest. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission documented the deaths of more than 6,000 residential school students. We knew there was more. The children uncovered at the Kamloops Indian Residential School, and others, has brought awareness to that truth.
Sept. 30 was recently declared Canada’s first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. I believe the recognition of this day by everyone is an important step going forward toward meaningful reconciliation. The Lil’wat wish for this day is for people to use it to become meaningfully informed and educated on this disturbing subject. People must be willing to listen and understand why this day is vitally important. The history of the First Nations people needs to be told from the First Nations’ perspective, informing and educating readers and listeners of all ages on Canada’s history towards our existence as Indigenous people.
Lil’wat Nation members are working our way out of the Indian Act, and the Indian reserve system. The Lil’wat continue to unravel the trauma inflicted by the former residential school system.
The Lil’wat Nation believes in reconciliation but we also believe that there is much work to be done. True reconciliation is multi-faceted and complex. It is not something that will change overnight. It will take participation from everyone in the understanding and process to make the changes that need changing. While this may cause some to become disillusioned or doubtful of the process, it only strengthens our resolve to complete the journey.
- Kúkwpi7 Skalúlmecw Lil’wat Chief Dean Nelson
Honouring a call to action
In September of 1973, then-six-year-old Phyllis (Jack) Webstad left her home on the Dog Creek reserve for St. Joseph’s Mission in Williams Lake, B.C., eager to start her first year at the Mission’s residential school.
“We never had very much money, but somehow my granny managed to buy me a new outfit to go to the Mission school. I remember going to Robinson’s store and picking out a shiny orange shirt,” Webstad, who is Northern Secwépemc (Shuswap) from the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation, recalls in an online post.
“It had string laced up in front, and was so bright and exciting—just like I felt to be going to school!”
The excitement didn’t last long. Upon Webstad’s arrival, she was stripped of her clothes, including her prized orange shirt.
“I never wore it again,” she writes. “I didn’t understand why they wouldn’t give it back to me, it was mine!”
Since, “The color [sic] orange has always reminded me of that and how my feelings didn’t matter, how no one cared and how I felt like I was worth nothing.”
Webstad’s is the story that sparked Orange Shirt Day in B.C.’s Cariboo Regional District in 2013, a legacy of the St. Joseph Mission Residential School Commemoration Project and Reunion events that took place in Williams Lake in May of that year.
Today, she is the executive director of the Orange Shirt Day Society, and the initiative has since spread from coast to coast. Each year on Sept. 30, Canadians are encouraged to don orange to acknowledge what was lost to residential schools and help foster meaningful discussion about the lasting impacts and legacy these government-sponsored, mostly church-run schools left behind. The date was chosen to mark the time of year during which Indigenous children were typically taken from their homes and brought to the schools.
But Sept. 30 will no longer just be known as Orange Shirt Day. Beginning this year, it marks the annual National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, after the Canadian government passed legislation declaring it a federal statutory day.
The decision fulfills No. 80 of 94 calls to action in the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which recommended the federal government work alongside Indigenous people to establish a statutory 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.”
Some provinces and municipalities have also chosen to mark the occasion. British Columbia has deemed Sept. 30 a day of commemoration rather than a provincial statutory holiday, though most schools, post-secondary institutions, Crown corporations and B.C. government offices will be closed.
The bill was fast-tracked through both houses of Parliament earlier this year, shortly after the remains of about 215 children were discovered in May by the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation, at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. The legislation follows a private member’s bill originally introduced by the NDP in 2017 that similarly responded to the TRC’s call to action, but failed in the Senate two years later.
In the wake of that first devastating discovery, officials have used ground-penetrating radar technology to locate upwards of 1,300 more unmarked graves on the grounds of former residential schools across Canada this year. It remains unknown how many thousands of the approximately 150,000 First Nation, Inuit, and Métis children who attended residential schools between 1831 and 1996 died at the institutions, but it is clear an even higher number were sexually, physically and emotionally abused.
As the TRC stated, the residential school system “can best be described as ‘cultural genocide.”
Learning the way forward
The significance of a federal statutory holiday dedicated to truth and reconciliation is “that there’s a commitment,” says Lil’wat linguist and educator Dr. Wanost’sa7 Lorna Williams. “And that there’s something to provoke that commitment in people. Otherwise, it wouldn’t happen.”
She continues, “A good example of that is that there are provinces that decided not to follow the federal mandate to make it a holiday. And so it’s important that it was named, and made a day for people to remember.”
Williams was also sent to St. Joseph’s Mission residential school as a child. But in 1973, the same year the institution took away Webstad’s favourite orange shirt, Williams was instead back in her home community working to establish Mount Currie’s band-controlled school—just the second school of its kind in Canada.
At that time, some Mount Currie children were already attending public school in Pemberton after the First Nations community’s federally run day school began closing grade by grade, Williams explains. She cites a plan presented to the federal government in 1947 that proposed to “liquidate” Canada’s “Indian problem” within 25 years, through advancing assimilation, in part, by integrating Indigenous youth into non-Indigenous school systems.
The gist of the plan, explains Williams, “was that, ‘We failed in wiping the Indian out of the child in the residential schools,’ so they said, ‘Maybe if [children] sat and went to school with non-Indigenous people, then we might be more successful.’
“That’s why there was a move to put children into the public school, and so that was, in a sense, what motivated us to start the [band-run] school.”
Williams’ other goal was to prevent Mount Currie—which in the ‘70s fortunately had many residents who still spoke Lil’wat Nation’s traditional language, Ucwalmícwts—from following in the footsteps of other First Nations communities that had seen their languages largely replaced with English.
So, Williams got to work co-authoring the first curriculum and learning resources eventually used to teach the Lil’wat language in the school, while helping to develop a writing system for Ucwalmícwts—all without any federal support or funding.
Simultaneously, she and her colleagues were tasked with helping build relationships between students and their families, communities and the land (all relationships that residential schools worked to tear down) while easing parents’ ingrained concerns that learning about Indigenous culture could hinder their children from achieving success at school, in the Western sense.
Says Williams, “We had to figure out and to learn what colonization meant, and how to go about changing our identity from a colonized being to one in which we could have pride in being in being Lil’wat.”
In December 2019, Williams, a professor emerita and the first director of the University of Victoria’s Indigenous education program, was awarded the Order of Canada for her contributions to Indigenous education and language revitalization.
Williams says she has seen a shift in recent years towards embracing land-based learning and acknowledging the importance of Indigenous culture and knowledge in education, while noting much of that shift has been driven by students themselves. With that in mind, she expresses hope that National Day for Truth and Reconciliation will be used as an opportunity for Canadians to deepen their knowledge about their country’s Indigenous peoples, considering the many generations the country spent silencing Indigenous history.
One only needs to look at the information that has and has not been available in public schools and universities, Williams adds: “I can see a change, but there’s a lot more work that needs to be done.”
Part of Williams’ emphasis on education’s role in reconciliation stems from the fact that it was the primary tool used to separate Indigenous children from their languages, knowledge systems, and the land, she says. “Unless we can change it, in education, it’s very difficult for people to learn and to make sense of the place of Indigenous peoples in this country.”
But learning can continue outside of traditional classroom settings, too. For example, in the Vancouver Island city of Duncan, where a collection of more than 40 publicly displayed totem poles were first erected as a tourism driver in the ‘80s. In the last decade, the collection expanded to include comprehensive signage honouring the history of the Quw’utsun’ (Cowichan) people who created the totems, Williams explains.
Or, on the roads.
Williams recalls travelling to First Nations communities throughout B.C. around 20 years ago, and noticing that signage directing drivers to any of these areas was “non-existent” save for a handful of handwritten paper signs, often attached to trees.
“At that time, I remember I was part of a meeting with a number of different government departments, and Highways was there. And so I brought this up and it was easy for them to change it,” Williams says. “Our treatment of non-existence is so normalized, we have to do many things to actively change that mindset, and signage is one of the things that can do that.”
It’s these simple acts that can provide “an entry point for people” to begin their learning journey, Williams says.
Finding common ground
Sharing Indigenous knowledge through storytelling is one of the things the Skwxwú7mesh Lilwat7úl Cultural Centre (SLCC) does best.
For example, consider the following old story: “Spo7ez was a village shared by the Squamish and Lil’wat Nation at the confluence of Rubble Creek and the Cheakamus River at Function Junction in Whistler,” reads the tale as written on the SLCC’s website. “For many years the members of both nations lived peacefully engaging in trade and commerce.
“Over time the villagers began to disrespect one another and the Thunderbird decided to take action. He flapped his wings causing a volcano to erupt and a massive rockslide that buried the ancient village of Spo7ez under a hundred meters (sic) of rock debris. Hundreds were killed instantly as the massive rockslide swept down the mountainside to the ocean. The survivors were sent home with a message, that we’re friends, family and neighbours and we need to work together.
“This story is still told today, and is evidence of our longstanding relationship with each other and a reminder of the importance of cooperation and a peaceful coexistence.”
With that in mind, the SLCC was created to showcase the two First Nations communities that were the first inhabitants of the land now known as Whistler.
“Specifically, it’s really highlighting how Whistler was used by these two nations and still continues to be used, whether it’s in a modern way or traditionally,” says Georgina Dan, the SLCC’s cultural administration coordinator and a member of the Lil’wat Nation.
For those looking for a way to commemorate the first-ever National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, the centre can serve as “a stepping stone to finding answers to questions, or to maybe more questions,” she adds.
A full day of programming will be held at the SLCC on Thursday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with free admission courtesy of the Fairmont Chateau Whistler (though donations are welcomed.)
It begins with a morning address from Squamish Nation’s Chepximiya Siyam’ Chief Janice George (her husband Skwetsimeltxw Willard “Buddy” Joseph will also be onsite to offer support, as will Gélpcal Cultural Chief Ashley Joseph and Saw’t Martina Pierre from Lil’wat Nation), followed by a spoken word performance from artist and SLCC ambassador, The Prophet.
A moment of silence will be held at noon, followed by a rendition of “Woman’s Warrior Song” by the Spo7ez Storytellers and Performance Team, while residential school survivors from Lil’wat Nation will be on hand to share their stories and host a smudge ceremony. Throughout the day, visitors can participate in a tour, make crafts, listen to songs of reflection, and view the We were Children pop-up exhibit curated by Mixalhítsa7 Alison Pascal and installed in honour of National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. A totem designed by Lil’wat Nation carver Q’awām Redmond Andrews and created alongside Squamish Nation apprentice Courtney Williams will also be unveiled, while both Andrews and Williams will speak about their summer project. Sheila Bikadi will lead an afternoon forest walk with tea.
“I don’t feel that it’s necessarily a day to celebrate, but it’s a day to honour those who have been affected, and to just take the time to listen and learn,” Dan says.
“I think it’s quite beautiful, to be honest … There are a lot of people who have been honouring this day already, but there’s also a lot of people who don’t know about it, and I think making it a statutory holiday for some people will highlight it a bit more.”
Admission will also be free throughout the weekend, from Oct. 1 to 3, courtesy of CIBC.
Moody Dan, the SLCC’s manager of operations (also a member of Lil’wat Nation, but no relation to Georgina), invites the community to make the time to re-visit the centre, as each SLCC guide has unique stories and perspectives to share during their tours.
“They are all similar but each tour guide adds to their own touch to it, so [visitors] can learn from each and every single one of our tour guides here,” he says.
For those unable to make it to the SLCC in person, the centre has a host of resources available on its website, slcc.ca.
Listening and learning
With the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) among the numerous communities formally recognizing Sept. 30 as National Truth and Reconciliation Day, Whistler Mayor Jack Crompton encourages all Whistlerites to use the day to pause and reflect.
Though the Whistler Public Library will remain closed on Thursday—as will Whistler’s municipal hall—the community is invited to stop by the library between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. to receive a free book on the topic of truth and reconciliation. Included in the more than 100 fiction and non-fiction titles (for all ages) being given away by staff are Phyllis’s Orange Shirt—written by Webstad—A National Crime, Indian Horse, and 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act, to name just a few.
The topic of reconciliation and addressing the enduring impacts of colonialism “is something that’s been important for us to talk about, to find ways to work through personally and with our families,” Crompton says, noting, “One of the most effective things we’ve done as a family is just to talk about it at the dinner table.”
Flags will be flown at half-mast and the Fitzsimmons Bridge lit up in orange, while the municipality, in partnership with the Whistler Chamber of Commerce, will distribute Truth and Reconciliation toolkits to local businesses. The Meadow Park Sports Centre will remain open on Thursday, though no group fitness classes will be held.
Meanwhile, most full-time municipal staff will have participated in cultural awareness and sensitivity training by Oct. 1, according to the RMOW.
Crompton says he’s “deeply grateful” not only to live and work on local First Nations’ unceded territory, but for the opportunity to build relationships with those communities as society embarks on “a long walk in the same direction” towards reconciliation.
“I believe a connection between Whistler and Squamish Nation and Whistler and Lil’wat Nation are critical to Whistler’s future,” he says, adding that, while beneficial, “reading a book or quiet reflection on our own simply cannot make up for what can be built by forming relationships.”
Up the highway, the Village of Pemberton (VOP) will be communicating with both staff and residents to spread the word that National Day for Truth and Reconciliation "is a chance for us to commemorate the history and ongoing trauma caused by residential schools and to honour those who were lost and the survivors, families and communities who continue to grieve,” said VOP CAO Nikki Gilmore in an emailed statement.
“We will also be suggesting that we use this opportunity to recommit to understanding the truth of our shared history, to accept and consider what each of us as individuals can do to advance reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.”
With the topic initially brought forward to Pemberton council in late August, officials discussed that, due the limited amount of time between the meeting and Sept. 30, the municipality will look at additional ways of recognizing National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in the future, Gilmore added.
Outside of listening, learning and wearing orange, Williams has a tip for those looking to support reconciliation on Thursday and in the years ahead: “Maintain the pressure on leaders and people of authority to continue to work alongside Indigenous people to build our relationship in a way that’s respectful and honouring.”