Reflecting on National Truth and Reconciliation Day
This story is new for some, new for far too many. Yet, familiar, for some. Familiar, for far too many.
In June of 2021, September 30th was marked as a federal statutory holiday from Parliament and deemed as the “National Day for Truth and Reconciliation”. This day is commonly known as Orange Shirt Day. Orange Shirt Day is an Indigenous-led, grass roots initiative that encourages all Canadians to wear an Orange Shirt to honour thousands of Indigenous children who never returned home, and the survivors of the government enforced residential schools. September 30th is a true day of reflection for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians. The intention is to encourage all Canadians to sit, discuss and sincerely educate themselves on real truths through stories about the painful processes that were designed to strip the core make up of one’s being.
These children were treated like they did not matter. 150,000 Indigenous children attended Residential Schools. Every Child Matters. As one begins to really understand the history of Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island and is committed to continue to make conscious decisions to embrace and support the need for change as an individual, can you consider your personal journey to reconciliation started. It must go far beyond wearing an orange shirt on September 30th. Reconciliation is a journey.
On September 30th, we see our timelines flooded with orange. We see people out in orange shirts waving orange flags. Seeing this surge of support is promising and I think it is just the starting point of a huge opportunity for change to take place. One lesson I have learned myself is that while there are many events and initiatives to take part in on this day, it’s important to take time to sit, think, reflect, and remember.
Residential Schools in Canada
As a child, I never felt or knew that my family was affected by the Residential Schools. In fact, Residential Schools weren’t ever talked about nor mentioned. Later as a young adult, when I did ask, I had been told was that it was part of history. It wasn’t talked about in my family, ever. Nothing of the past was, so I assumed our family wasn’t directly affected. I later realized I was ignorant to the truth. Now I know and understand why. My mama (grandmother) had told me during a visit, over a cup of tea, about how her siblings were all taken, and she was “saved” because she was hidden so they wouldn’t take “the baby”. I just remember thinking, “oh my goodness you were so lucky!” and “phew, she didn’t go!”. It was left at that. I never heard about it much after that, so this left me with the understanding that that was the closest our family was to that horrible time. I realize now, that at that time, I was young and naïve. It wasn’t until I grew older and began to hear more and more about Residential Schools that a light switch turned on. I came to realize how traumatizing that would have been for our Mama, her parents, siblings and the long term affects on everyone in the family. Not to mention once her siblings returned from Residential School, the foundation did not seem so solid.
I just remember thinking, “oh my goodness you were so lucky!” and “phew, she didn’t go!”. It was left at that. I never heard about it much after that, so this left me with the understanding that that was the closest our family was to that horrible time. I realize now, that at that time, I was young and naïve.
Four years ago, I found out my mother went to Indian Day School. Years ago, I remember seeing a school picture of her as a young girl and three of her sisters (my aunts), along with other children who are now respected Elders from our community. I never put two and two together – that picture was my mother and three of my aunts’ Indian Day School class. No, I would know, wouldn’t I? She is my mother. Family would communicate that information, wouldn’t they? Unfortunately, they didn’t and I respect their reasons why. I was told that they were just happy that their children didn’t have to go, and it was a time in their lives that they didn’t want to remember, never mind pass the haunting stories onto us. That information has changed me forever. It lit a roaring flame in me that I can’t quite fully explain. The drum beat in my heart got louder. I was brought into the realities of being directly affected by the Residential School System within seconds. We all were.
Celebrating Indigenous Culture
I’m 50 years old. My father is from the Bear Clan and my mother was from the Eagle Clan. I grew up on the reserve for 90% of my childhood. I remember being shown pictures of myself as a young one, not even school aged. Pictures of me putting baking flour on my baby brown skin because I didn’t want to be brown. At 3 years old, I didn’t want to be an Indian. Like most of us back then, I experienced bullying. I’m not claiming to have had the worst experiences, I know of much worse for so many people. Being an ‘Indian’ in those days wasn’t fun. There was no pride, there was shame and sadness. The feelings of having to work that much harder to try feel included, to feel good enough, to feel equal, were very real. My tough girl act then became my vice. We didn’t have Powwows and we didn’t celebrate. We didn’t realize how precious and beautiful our culture was. We were considered dirty and made to feel like we didn’t measure up. I’ve always felt as if it wasn’t fair, as we were made to feel like we were less than, but I wasn’t sure why…because we had brown skin? I remember always hearing some people in my home community speaking the language and hearing it when visiting my grandparents. I always wanted to understand, and I always thought how awesome the language sounded. But we weren’t ever taught it. I accepted at a very young age that it was something I wasn’t supposed to know how to do. The language was for the “old people” and was from the “old days”. We weren’t told about any of the past so how would we know? I remember History class in grade school, learning about the “old Indians” with the rest the class. It just seemed so fantasy like, in another time, another world. I had no idea how closely I was connected to it all.
What you may not realize is that every single Indigenous person in Canada is affected in one way shape or form, from the attempt of the genocide mandates, that were set by the Canadian Government thought the Residential School system. Seeking knowledge of how diverse Indigenous Peoples are in Canada, is integral. Indigenous Peoples make up the most diverse group of peoples in the world! As with any new relationship, one needs to work very hard to build a solid foundation to ensure the authenticity of your interest. Many Canadians use one brush stroke when referring to Indigenous Peoples on Turtle Island. For example, did you know that not all Tribes, First Nations, regions, and territories, practice the same cultural ceremonies, traditions, religions, values or even speak the same language? My best advice would be to never assume, don’t be afraid to ask questions. More Indigenous people will appreciate the ask than not. Educating yourself and building this strong foundation is about doing research and asking important questions.
What you may not realize is that every single Indigenous person in Canada is affected in one way shape or form, from the attempt of the genocide mandates, that were set by the Canadian Government thought the Residential School system. Seeking knowledge of how diverse Indigenous Peoples are in Canada, is integral.
Today, I’m the President and CEO of ORIGIN, a company that’s been in operation for over 15 years. My husband and the ORIGIN team have worked with Indigenous communities at the grass roots level for many, many years. We have worked with over 100 communities to date and are presently supporting our Indigenous communities nationwide. I firmly believe that we supported and promoted Reconciliation in this country before it became the ‘thing to do’. Before the findings of unmarked graves. Before mandates were put in place to include our people. Before the rest of the country caught on to the magnitude of it all. I’m so proud of our team. Every single member of our staff at ORIGIN is truly amazing. Our work is from the heart, and we lead with integrity first. ORIGIN’s team works to ensure the inclusion of Indigenous people across our nation everyday.
We’ve implemented technology over the years from our Heavy Equipment CAT Simulators trailer to our virtual reality platform, ImmersiveLink. This platform hosts two libraries, the Career and Cultural educational 360 experiences. We believe that all our communities should have access to technology and information as the rest of Turtle Island. While this technology is used for education purposes, it also serves as a form of cultural preservation. Knowledge Keepers and Elders have captured their community’s stories and traditions through these experiences. To expand on the application of this technology, we now offer the production and development of VR community and Pow Wow tours so communities can continue to pass on land-based knowledge and celebrations with generations to come. To learn more about how you can preserve your community’s knowledge visit: https://immersivelink.ca/360-video-production/cultural-preservation/
Journey towards Reconciliation
As an Indigenous woman, I need to remain steadfast and confident. I am fully aware of and feel that responsibility. I understand that my expressions would solidify the direct reflection of where I am at this point of my own journey. I possess courage and I will continue to use my voice confidently and positively. A teaching from my late grandmother and respected Elder Agnes Hardy, will always remain with me; “Speak even if your voice is shaky”. I will continue to trust my thought process of “if ONE person reads this piece, then sits, reflects and begins their journey, change happened.”
Melissa Hardy-Giles is an Anishinaabe Qwe from Lake Helen Reserve and a proud member of the Red Rock Indian Band. Let’s work. Together.