On September 30 last year, I experienced something I wasn’t sure was ever going to take place.
For the first time ever, Canada marked a day of remembrance for the children who never returned home and the survivors of residential schools, with the first-ever National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
This federal statutory holiday was timed to coincide with Orange Shirt Day, an indigenous-led grassroots commemorative day to raise awareness about the tragic history of residential schools.
As we approach the second annual National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, many organizations across Canada – including TD – will mark the day with messages of support, educational resources for employees, and acts of solidarity with Indigenous organizations and individuals.
But it wasn’t always that way.
Where it started
When I joined TD in 2015, I was excited to embark on a new career journey. This new role would give me the opportunity to learn and develop new skills, but I had no idea that it would also take me on another journey; a journey of advocating for the Indigenous community – my community.
Upon arriving at the Bank, I definitely experienced a bit of culture shock. Before coming to TD, I had never personally celebrated holidays like Thanksgiving or Canada Day. Many people don’t realize how much of our calendar is shaped around the colonial roots of our society, and how many members of the Indigenous community have a negative relationship with those roots.
At the same time, when it came to the holidays I did want to recognize as part of my culture and community, they weren’t commonly known, which made it more difficult for me to get those days off without using my vacation days.
Orange Shirt Day was one of those days.
At the time, I think it’s safe to say that most Canadians outside of Indigenous communities had never heard of Orange Shirt Day. When someone wore an orange shirt on the last day of September, it was thought of as nothing more than a flashy wardrobe choice, certainly not an act of remembrance.
That lack of familiarity made me realize that there was an opportunity to help educate my friends and colleagues about my community and my culture. I saw it as an opportunity to help break down barriers and promote inclusion and understanding for future generations.
A lot easier said than done, but it was time to build awareness.
Bringing Orange Shirt Day to the Bank
I started small. The first step was to find a place where I could share my culture in a comfortable setting, while connecting with as many people as possible. And what better place than a high-traffic TD cafeteria at lunch time?
After a quick stop at the printer, I sat down in the lunchroom equipped with a couple dozen educational coloring papers, my carvings, furs and stones, wearing my orange shirt, ready to share the importance of Orange Shirt Day and what it meant for advancing Truth and Reconciliation.
During my quick lunch hour, I was able to speak to around 10-15 people to share my culture and educate colleagues on the importance of Orange Shirt Day. It might not have been on the largest scale, but it was definitely a start. From there, I started campaigning to get colleagues and allies across the Bank to participate in Orange Shirt Day and shared resources on where they could purchase an orange shirt of their own.
Before I knew it, I was working with a small group of TD colleagues from the Indigenous community to raise awareness of important topics and issues related to our culture, and to help make Orange Shirt Day a staple of the Bank’s diversity and inclusion efforts.
Finally, in 2017, we saw some significant pick up across the Bank. Different lines of business, locations across Canada all took the initiative to start participating and show their support and solidarity on this important day.
The ongoing impacts
Some people may ask why it’s so important to mark Orange Shirt Day inside an organization like TD. And the reason is simple: residential schools are a part of our shared history, albeit an uncomfortable part. Within the Indigenous community, virtually no family has been left untouched by this shameful legacy.
My family is from Nunsiaeut, the northern part of Labrador. It is a common misconception that Inuit Peoples were not impacted by the residential school system. We were. My grandmother had a very large family, and she had 7 children.
All but two of her children were lost to the system.
This is not an uncommon story for Indigenous families. We all have stories of family members taken, never to be seen or heard from again. Survivors left with wounds that will never fully heal. And the next generation is stuck dealing with the lasting impacts of these schools and, rather than being raised surrounded by it, they’re left with the burden of picking up the pieces of what’s left of our culture – otherwise it will be lost too.
Every year, when I put on my orange shirt, I make sure to reflect on our history, to think of those who have suffered and the challenges our community continues to face.
I make it a custom to, along with my orange shirt, put on my traditional clothing. My seal skin earrings and headband, anything that makes me feel strong and proud of my culture.
I take our four medicines – sage, sweetgrass, tobacco and cedar – and along with my family, I go to the water. Once there, we put these medicines in the water and we give thanks. Thanks for what we have and how far we’ve come, we pray for my ancestors and for the elders still suffering and acknowledge the ongoing impacts of the trauma that our families have faced.
Marking the second annual National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is a huge step on this country’s journey of redemption. Of course, I recognize that we still have a long way to go on our journey – particularly with our youth.
Because of the legacy of residential schools, our youth are often disconnected from our culture. They have grown up in a society filled with barriers and roadblocks, leaving them to continuously fight the system to achieve their full potential. It’s not an easy path.
If there’s one thing I would encourage all Canadians to do on September 30 this year, it’s to remember that the pain of residential schools still lingers. This is not something that is over and done with. We owe it to the next generation to support them on their journey as they look to heal the wounds of the past and chart a new course forward for our communities.
To learn more about the TD commitment to Indigenous Communities, visit: https://td.com/indigenous