Second reading of Bill C-5, An Act to amend the Bills of Exchange Act, the Interpretation Act and the Canada Labour Code (National Day for Truth and Reconciliation)

By: The Hon. Brian Francis

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Hon. Brian Francis: Honourable senators, I rise today to speak at second reading of Bill C-5, An Act to amend the Bills of Exchange Act, the Interpretation Act and the Canada Labour Code (National Day for Truth and Reconciliation).

I would like to begin by acknowledging I am delivering my remarks from Epekwitk, now known as Prince Edward Island, the ancestral and unceded territory of my people, the Mi’kmaq or, as we call ourselves, L’nú’k.

I join in the collective grief and sorrow over the discovery of 215 Indigenous children, some as young as three years old, who were buried in unmarked graves at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, which was one of the largest in Canada and operated from the late 19th century to the late 1970s.

I cannot help but be overcome by horror and anger thinking about their last days and hours on earth experiencing isolation, loneliness and fear. Their dead bodies were then discarded like trash, their lives viewed as disposable and treated as such.

But these were children who were loved and are still loved and missed. None of them deserved to be deprived of their dignity and humanity.

It may be difficult to accept that Canada, a country that has long prided itself as being a bastion of democracy, peace and kindness throughout the world, was involved in the planned and deliberate genocide of Indigenous peoples. Yet what other evidence do we need that this is exactly what happened here on behalf of Canada and of Canadians? We should call it what it is and not be complicit in its perpetuation. It is genocide; there is no other word for it.

Many of us are fathers and grandfathers, and we cannot even begin to fathom the depth of loss and suffering felt by the families and communities in British Columbia and across this country who are still waiting for answers and closure. All the wounds that never healed have been reopened and will remain so until each missing child is identified and returned home. I urge each of you to help answer the calls of Indigenous leaders and communities to assist in these efforts.

It’s deeply upsetting that it takes a tragedy of this magnitude to remind everyone that Indigenous people are worthy and deserving of care and protection, and that we have a right, just like everyone else, to lead happy, healthy and fulfilling lives free from the consequences of discrimination, racism and violence. I mean, it should not have to be said but apparently, it does.

The time has come to move beyond words to actions. We, Indigenous People, have spent too long fighting for our dignity, well-being and survival. It is time for Canada to uphold its promises and act honourably.

This country will not begin to heal and reconcile until the truth is known and corrective action is taken. Only then will we build a renewed relationship between Canada and Indigenous people, one based on the recognition of rights, respect, co-operation and partnership. That is the future we should all work towards. The establishment of the “National Day for Truth and Reconciliation” on September 30 of each year will be one small but significant step in that direction.

Honourable senators, I will focus my remarks today on the meaning and significance of the national day for truth and reconciliation, which I support unequivocally. It has been said before, but it bears repeating: The residential school system is not a dark chapter in our past; it is a lived reality for many. The residential school system operated in Canada for more than 160 years. The last one closed in 1996 — that was only 25 years ago. The primary purpose for these institutions was not education — it was to remove children from their families and communities in order to better assimilate them into the dominant culture. It was, as it was infamously said, to “kill the Indian in the child to save the man.” These actions were based on racist assumptions about the intellectual and cultural inferiority of Indigenous people and our ways of knowing and being.

All of us here have a unique responsibility to help undo these past wrongs and to challenge the settler narrative that continues to ignore Indigenous histories and realities. We have to have these tough and uncomfortable conversations so that we can use our roles as legislators to build a more inclusive and equitable future for all.

It is estimated that more than 150,000 children were taken from their homes and sent to these harsh and dangerous institutions. Our children were deprived of the love and care of their families and communities over many years, and sometimes permanently. Our children were made to feel worthless and ashamed of who they were, which resulted in the loss of language, culture and identity, as well as the destruction of familial and community bonds. Too often, our children were subjected to rampant neglect and abuse. What happened here, and in all other residential schools, would not be tolerated today, and it should not have been tolerated back then.

We know, for example, that at the infamous St. Anne’s residential school in Fort Albany, Ontario, there was a makeshift electric chair used to torture children as young as 6 years old. Let that sink in. Canada did that. What is worse, the survivors of St. Anne’s residential school have been fighting the federal government for years over documents detailing the horrors committed there. That is seriously shameful and ought to remind us all that truth, healing and justice continue to be a hard-fought battle for survivors and for Indigenous people in general.

All of us need to have open minds and difficult conversations. The residential schools contributed to the Canada we live in now. There is no debate on this point. The federal government and others must be held accountable for failing residential school survivors for years. We have to redress past and ongoing harm. Doing so will help us bring respect and trust into our relationships. It is clear that we are not there yet, but that is the future that we can and must build for our children and grandchildren.

The trauma caused by the residential schools continues to be felt today. I have seen too many lives lost and families torn apart. I myself attended an Indian day school — a version of the residential schools where students lived with their parents and remained in their communities. Just like those who attended residential schools, many who attended an Indian day school have had to live with trauma inflicted at the hands of those entrusted with our care. Even at 63 years old, I am not ready to speak about it. My healing is still ongoing.

Honourable senators, we use the term “survivors” because we know that many did not survive the residential school system. We must forever honour the resilience and resistance of each of the survivors in the face of attempts to suppress every aspect of their being. You will have heard by now that around 6,000 children died while attending residential schools. However, the number could be much higher, because the names of the students who died were too often unrecorded. The figure could be as high as 25,000.

Further compounding the anguish, many residential schools did not return children’s bodies to their families, too often citing cost as a reason. Many, if not most, are buried in unmarked and untended graves across the country. Some have been found because of archival documents and oral testimony, and others through accidental disturbances. We may never find all of our children, but that does not mean we will stop trying.

Earlier this week, I heard renewed calls by survivors of the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School in Nova Scotia to locate unmarked graves at the site. The news hit close to home, because a few family members and friends are survivors. Theirs are not my stories to tell, but I will say that most are still learning to deal with and heal from the experience. It is not something we often talk about, but I can see the scars it has left on their bodies and souls. I speak as a First Nations person, but it’s important to note that our Inuit and Métis brothers and sisters have also experienced much harm at these federally run institutions and because of other harmful policies and practices.

Honourable senators, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was tasked with establishing a historical record, was one part of the largest class-action lawsuit in Canadian history. The final report, which was released in 2015, exposed a truth that many never knew existed. It also outlined 94 Calls to Action that all levels of government and society must take to repair the harm caused by residential schools and begin the process of reconciliation.

The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission said:

Reconciliation must become a way of life. It will take many years to repair damaged trust and relationships . . . . Reconciliation not only requires apologies, reparations, the relearning of Canada’s national history, and public commemoration, but also needs real social, political, and economic change. Ongoing public education and dialogue are essential to reconciliation. Governments, churches, educational institutions, and Canadians from all walks of life are responsible for taking action on reconciliation in concrete ways, working collaboratively with Aboriginal peoples. Reconciliation begins with each and every one of us.

Five years have already passed since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its final report. It is disappointing that many Canadians are still unaware of the history and legacy of the residential school system. It is even more concerning that some continue to ignore or even deny the nature and scope of the harm caused. We have seen this happen in our chamber.

This narrative must be unequivocally countered because it contributes to the prevalence of ignorant and racist beliefs and attitudes about Indigenous people that continue to affect every aspect of our lives and only adds to the suffering and trauma generations of us have experienced. I am a firm believer in the notion that we do better once we know better. That is why I invite everyone inside and outside this chamber to take the time to read the six volumes of the final report. It is a must-read document and available online for free.

Honourable senators, the national day for truth and reconciliation is but one step. However, it is the sum of all our individual and collective actions, of all the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that, when fully implemented, will create our new normal. If we follow this path, we will continue to move forward as a country in a positive direction. We can start doing this now, this week, with the passage of Bill C-5.

This bill directly fulfills Call to Action 80 of the Truth and Reconciliation report, which calls on Canada to establish a statutory holiday, a national day for truth and reconciliation, to honour survivors, their families and communities, and to ensure that public commemoration of the history and legacy of residential schools remains a vital component of the reconciliation process. The date chosen is September 30, which builds on the grassroots momentum of Orange Shirt Day.

The establishment of the national day for truth and reconciliation is, in itself, significant, because it is a formal and public acknowledgment of what was done to survivors, their families and communities. So much of the history of this country has been hidden. This has created a deep divide between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people that needs to be addressed. The new holiday will mark a new chapter — one in which we will all walk together, side by side, to heal and repair relationships damaged by the residential school system and other policies and practices.

In order for that to happen, there has to be an increased awareness and understanding of the history of the residential schools, including the immediate and intergenerational impacts on First Nations, Métis and Inuit.

The national day for truth and reconciliation is a day meant to both commemorate the past and to educate in the future. The journey that has gotten us to where we are today begins with the survivors who fought, and continue to fight, to ensure the history and legacy of the residential school system are known and never forgotten or repeated.

Most of us cannot begin to understand the abuse and trauma all survivors endured, or the strength it has taken for some of them to come forward and relive it. Without the courageous and persistent efforts of survivors, the shameful treatment of Indigenous people would not have been brought to light.

The holiday is needed because survivors will not be here to gather and share their stories and experiences in the future. It is estimated that there are only 80,000 survivors alive today. That number continues to decrease each year.

Like Remembrance Day, the new statutory holiday will be a day to pause, reflect and honour all the lives lost and impacted by the residential schools. Last November, Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya of the Northwest Territories, who is himself a survivor, said the following at the House of Commons Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage:

Just like we commemorate November 11, when we all put aside our differences and honour the people who fought for us, who gave us this freedom and sacrificed their lives, we are doing this with the residential schools. Our parents gave up their children to the schools and the churches, and they sacrificed, and the impact is very devastating, but we are a forgiving nation, and we want the Canadian people to understand that, as aboriginal people, this is what really happened to us.

Dr. Marie Wilson, one of the three commissioners of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, appeared at the same committee during the study of Bill C-369, introduced by former New Democratic Party MP Georgina Jolibois. The previous iteration of this legislation died in 2019 with the dissolution of the Forty-second Parliament. Dr. Wilson noted then that the national day for truth and reconciliation should receive the same dignity and solemnity as Remembrance Day. She explained:

As a country, we understand fully the heartache of a mother who has lost a son or daughter to war. We make great efforts to bring home with dignity and ceremony anyone lost, and to honour the parent left behind. Each year, as we did recently, we honour a Silver Cross Mother to represent all grieving parents. We mark Remembrance Day in a national ceremony in all our schools and at monuments throughout the country in honour of all veterans, living or dead. We acknowledge, collectively, those never found with the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

When have we ever demonstrated such reverence for residential school children, also lost in a state-sanctioned context of proven harm?

Colleagues, creating the national day for truth and reconciliation as a federal statutory holiday can be compared to Remembrance Day because it will hold the same spirit of reflection and remembrance. On September 30 we will stop to reflect on our history and our values as a nation.

Many of you may not know, but the odds of a student dying while attending a residential school was 1 in 25. In contrast, the odds of a soldier dying during the Second World War was 1 in 26. Take a minute to think about these statistics. These were innocent children who were forcefully and lawfully taken away from their families and communities. These were not adults who volunteered to serve in combat zones.

We can understand, now, that this holiday is not meant to be a celebration. Instead, it will be an opportunity for ongoing public commemoration through education.

The chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, our former colleague the Honourable Murray Sinclair, has spoken many times and to many different people about the connection between education and reconciliation. You will recall him stating time and again, “education got us into this mess and education will get us out of it.”

Education takes place in many ways — one of which, of course, is the structured education in elementary and secondary schools. Results of a Research Co. online survey released last year illustrate the importance of education as a foundation for reconciliation. The survey found that close to half, roughly 45%, of respondents said they never learned about residential schools when they were in elementary or high school in Canada. Equally troubling was the fact that the survey found that about one third of respondents who did learn about residential schools remember their teachers casting the schools in a positive light.

The survey, of course, had other statistics in it. One in particular struck me because it highlighted that younger generations are leading the way when it comes to reconciliation. The younger the respondents were, the more likely they were to have discussed the topic of residential schools in the classroom. I am encouraged that the knowledge of residential schools is increasing in school settings.

The orange shirts that children, youth and even many adults now wear on September 30 to recognize the story of Phyllis Jack Webstad and her experience at residential school makes me hopeful that my granddaughters will one day live in a new reality.

That’s quite the statistic. Almost 50% of our current population never learned about residential schools while they were in school.

First Nations, Métis and Inuit people knew all too well about residential schools. We are heartbroken but not shocked by the latest discovery of mass graves. We know this is neither the first nor the last time this will happen. That is the point of the national day for truth and reconciliation: to educate all Canadians, young and old, newcomers, and those from all walks of life and all cultures.

We can celebrate the achievements and the great people who contributed to Canada, but this is a one-sided story if we do not understand the dark and horrific legacy of residential schools. By creating a new statutory holiday, we create a reason for people of all ages and backgrounds to pause, listen, learn and engage in dialogue. We further create a reason for future generations to not only ask, “Why?” but to commit to “Never again.”

The journey toward truth, healing, justice and reconciliation must be based on a willingness to open our minds and hearts. We have to be able to reckon with realities that may be uncomfortable and challenging — such as that some benefited, whether directly or indirectly, from the genocide against First Nations, Métis and Inuit people. It is not about pointing fingers or assigning blame. It is about understanding how history contributed to the Canada that we live in today.

I believe it is important to have these difficult conversations and remain open to imagining how things could be better. We can then begin to find ways to address and redress the damage done together.

Colleagues, Bill C-5 is another step on the journey toward truth, healing, justice and reconciliation. It is, indeed, all about commemoration and education. This day will help all of us bear witness to our history and deepen our resolve to change the narrative.

I will remind you that it is our collective duty and responsibility to make sure that we remember the survivors, their families and communities, and the lasting history and legacy of residential schools. The national day for truth and reconciliation will serve as an annual reminder that truth, healing, justice and reconciliation are not things that you can just tick off a list.

Colleagues, the designation of a national statutory holiday relates to other Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Examples include Call to Action 57 and Call to Action 81.

Given the fact that this bill was at a standstill in the other place for six months, I spent a lot of time meeting with survivors and organizations and working with survivors. It was important for me to hear directly from them. I learned a lot in the process and shared some of the findings with ministerial and department officials, who are anticipating the first official “National Day for Truth and Reconciliation” next September.

One of the main topics we discussed was the need to promote professional development and training for public servants along the lines of Call to Action 57. This Call to Action calls on all orders of government, including the federal government, to prioritize professional development around the history and legacy of residential schools, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, treaties and Aboriginal rights, Indigenous law and Aboriginal-Crown relations.

I worked in the federal public service for over two decades, so I know that the more public servants know about these topics, the more sensitive and responsive they will be to our communities, and the more just and more equitable policies and practices will be. You do better when you know better.

The work to increase awareness and understanding of the history and contemporary issues of Indigenous peoples is already underway. The Canada School of Public Service launched the Indigenous Learning Series in 2017. This learning series looks at the themes of recognition, respect, relationships and reconciliation. Over 80,000 public servants have completed online and in-class courses and participated in special events that relate to the history of Indigenous peoples.

This statistic only accounts for events and sessions offered directly through the Canada School of Public Service. We know that many workers have taken training offered by their departments, because the federal government put a priority on addressing Call to Action 57. In fact, the number is likely much higher. Just as the curricula in elementary and high schools are becoming more inclusive, so too are the professional development opportunities offered to adults in many parts of the country. Education matters and education will indeed lead us out of this mess.

It is also worth mentioning that since the start of 2021, Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada, and Indigenous Services Canada, which provide many front-line services to Indigenous peoples, have implemented an Indigenous Cultural Competency Learning Policy. This is a small but welcome development, and I am hopeful that other governments, departments and agencies will soon follow suit.

That being said, we should not hold others to standards we do not hold for ourselves. I believe that when you are a leader, it is your duty to lead by example and others will follow.

When I was appointed, I found it shocking to learn that it is not mandatory for parliamentarians and their staff to have professional development and training to increase awareness and understanding of the history and the contemporary issues of Indigenous peoples. That is deeply concerning given our role as lawmakers and overseers of government action.

That is why, last March, I encouraged senators and staff of my caucus, the Progressive Senate Group, to participate in a six-hour guided training program. The knowledge and skills gained through this experience have enhanced the breadth and quality of our work. I am proud of that.

As a result, I remain convinced that all parliamentarians and staff would benefit from participation in similar programs both on an initial and ongoing basis.

It is not lost on me that the Senate as an institution and Parliament as a whole have been involved in the design and implementation of laws and policies that have harmed generations of Indigenous people, including the residential school system. We have a moral and legal obligation to address and repair the harm done. But to do that, we first have to educate ourselves on these issues. That will demonstrate a real commitment on our part to improving the conditions affecting Indigenous people and communities. That, colleagues, is my challenge to you. Please listen, learn and act on reconciliation.

We must remember that the Calls to Action came from a commission that studied these areas extensively. They arise from Indigenous voices and stories. Call to Action 80, creating this national day, is a way for the federal government to show leadership by making the past visible.

Call to Action 80 is one of the commemorative Calls to Action, along with Call to Action 81, for example, that calls for a residential schools national monument.

Monuments and national days are powerful symbolic actions that signal society’s values so that we are in a good space to continue all our other important work, to keep learning and to take concrete action to right past wrongs. We must also continue to contribute to meaningful healing and to work hard every day to dismantle the systemic discrimination and racism that is ever-present in our communities, in our health care, in our education systems, in our government institutions and everywhere in our society.

I will conclude my remarks now by expressing how pleased I am that all groups have come together to make the establishment of the statutory holiday a priority. This is a non-partisan issue worthy of our support.

Since there was agreement in our chamber to proceed without committee consideration, I asked a few survivors and organizations working for survivors for short statements I could share on their behalf. This is what two of them had to say.

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation wrote:

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) is where truths of Residential School Survivors are honoured and kept safe for future generations. These experiences told by Survivors have a spirit and must be part of Canada’s living memory.

The NCTR applauds the passing of Bill C-5 which will establish a day dedicated to honouring Survivors and their families. In a time where heartache and loss is felt across this country and new truths are coming to light, we are solemnly reminded that there is much work ahead in our Reconciliation journey.

Lila Bruyere of the NCTR Survivors Circle said:

As Survivors, to share our painful experiences took immense strength and courage. This day honours the voices of all Survivors and recognizes our truths. Years from now, future generations will not have the opportunity to hear from Survivors directly. We must act now to build better understanding and empathy among all Canadians. We must never let this happen to innocent children ever again.

Phyllis Webstad, whom I spoke of earlier, added:

The Orange Shirt Society proudly supports Orange Shirt Day, September 30th, in becoming a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

A National Day of Truth and Reconciliation is an important and positive step toward Canada’s Reconciliation. We hope all Canadians continue to wear their orange shirts on this day.

For many years, our governments were integral and complicit in Canada’s Indian Residential School System.

Today, we recognize the positive steps being taken by the Federal Government, but acknowledge that there is still more work to do.

With the passing of Bill C-5, we honour all Residential School survivors, their families, and remember those who did not make it. We will always be reminded of the horrors of Canada’s Residential School System, as we have been this week when the remains of 215 children from Kamloops Indian Residential School were discovered. These children and their stories must not be forgotten. “Every Child Matters.”

Colleagues, I said it before and I will say it again: This institution has been complicit in the historical and ongoing harm inflicted on Indigenous peoples. In passing Bill C-5 with unanimous support, all of us will go on record acknowledging the need to move forward together as a nation towards truth, healing, justice and reconciliation.

I urge you to support the passage of the bill without delay. Many of us are eager to participate in special events and ceremonies this September 30 to remember and honour the thousands of children who were stolen and placed in residential schools.

I know Canadians across the country will join together on this day to pay their respects and to reaffirm their individual and collective commitment to the long process of reconciliation ahead.

Wela’lin. Thank you.

 

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