Hollow Day

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The federal government will consider a bill to make September 30 a statutory holiday across Canada to commemorate a “National Truth and Reconciliation Day.”

This, after the House of Commons heritage committee approved a measure February 5 to usurp the informal occasion that already uses the last day of September – “Orange Shirt Day” – to remember the experiences of residential-school students.

For the Trudeau government, the proposal responds to the call to action No. 80 from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which seeks a statutory holiday “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.”

Indigenous organizations are split on the proposal. The Assembly of First Nations supports the gesture, while the Native Women’s Association said that combining a day of celebration with a day of reconciliation is “inappropriate and disrespectful.”

Indeed, it’s hard to reconcile a celebration of the 150,000 children removed from their homes to endure the horrific conditions in residential schools, much less the 6,000 or more who died or disappeared there. It’s also hard to see how giving federal employees a day off – since those are almost the only workers to benefit from a federal stat holiday that isn’t recognized by individual provinces – will lead to genuine reconciliation.

Prime Minister Trudeau promised to enact all of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action back in 2015. But with a federal election looming next fall, this recommendation is the only one his government is close to meeting. Consider also the fact that the number of Indigenous children in care outside their homes is almost three times the number in residential school at the height of their operations.

The parallel with the Indigenous Languages Act, also tabled in Parliament February 5, is evident. The bill would set up an Office of the Commissioner of Indigenous Languages to promote and protect the many that are threatened across Canada. The proportion of Native people able to speak their language today is about 16%, down from almost a third 20 years ago.

However, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, which represents Inuit in Canada, said the Liberals engaged in “bad faith” in developing the legislation. According to its president, Natan Obed, the bill is “yet another legislative initiative developed behind closed doors by a colonial system and then imposed on Inuit.”

He noted that the new Commissioner of Indigenous Languages is little more than a new title for the existing Aboriginal Languages Initiative Program, which has failed to halt the decline, and will direct funding to federal bureaucrats instead of Indigenous organizations.

In that sense, these proposals speak volumes about the Liberal government’s approach to First Nations issues. Trudeau is a master of the empty symbol that is a way of showing that he really, really cares. But in the end, the words are hollow, just like the language initiative, and just like his holiday.

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