Stephanie Scott is the executive director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. She is Anishinaabe from Roseau River First Nation, a Sixties Scoop survivor and the daughter of a residential school survivor.
Ten years ago, Phyllis Webstad organized the first Orange Shirt Day to honour residential school survivors and the children who never came home. This year – the third in which Sept. 30 has been officially recognized as a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation – we anticipate that record numbers of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people will take part in reconciliation-focused events across the country.
Through these events, we will grieve the thousands of children who did not come home from residential schools, and honour the survivors who continue to bravely tell the world about their experiences. We will also share hard truths about Canada’s colonial history: truths that some people are still not prepared to hear and do not want to have told.
Unfortunately, even as more and more Canadians engage in sincere acts of commemoration and reconciliation, the voices of those who minimize, distort and deny this history are also getting louder.
National and international media outlets have given a platform to residential school deniers who – despite having no particular expertise on the subject – loudly reject the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and dismiss the lived experiences of survivors. The efforts of families to find the children buried at residential school sites have become a lightning rod for hatred.
Earlier this year, Kimberly Murray, the independent special interlocutor for missing children and unmarked graves and burial sites associated with Indian Residential Schools, reported that when communities make announcements related to unmarked graves, they become targets of online attacks. She also reported that some denialists have chosen the alarming and inexcusable route of attempting to physically enter these sites with shovels to “see for themselves” the evidence of children buried there.
The rise of residential school denialism is dangerous and must be countered through a clear and unwavering commitment to truth-telling. The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation stands with Indigenous communities and families in calling for governments to urgently consider legal mechanisms that can effectively combat these hateful actions. We also call on all individuals in Canada to educate themselves on the true history of residential schools.
For far too long, the truth of this shameful part of Canada’s history was kept hidden. Survivors were told to be silent. The progress that has been made to finally acknowledge this history, such as Canada’s official apology and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, only happened because of the courage of survivors and their steadfast commitment to the truth.
Today, it is more crucial than ever to face the brutal and tragic truth of the residential school system and other colonial institutions, policies and laws. Only through acknowledgment of the truth can survivors and their families heal, and communities rebuild. Only by coming to honest terms with the past can we prevent the recurrence of similar violent crimes.
However, the burden of truth-telling should not be placed on the shoulders of survivors. Reconciliation requires institutions, governments, and individuals to live up to their own responsibilities and complete and fulfill the TRC’s 94 calls to action. We must all learn the true history of residential schools, listen to survivors and take a stand against those who would deny, distort and minimalize this history.
The NCTR has created a national memorial register as a way to publicly honour the children who never returned home from residential schools. The register currently names 4,130 children, and more names will be added as we continue the painstaking work of reviewing the records in our care and as millions of additional government and church records, never previously released, become available for research.
I would urge every Canadian to take time to review the register. Think about the children and their families. Reflect on why this truth must not be denied or diminished. And champion these truths in your life and community, so that Canada will not falter or turn back on the road to reconciliation.