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Teaching Canadians to observe solemn new Truth and Reconciliation Day could take time

The holiday grants a paid day off to federally regulated employees and public servants
A woman places one of 215 pairs of children’s shoes on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery as a memorial to the 215 children whose remains have been found buried at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, in Vancouver, B.C., Friday, May 28, 2021. When the Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc Nation announced the discovery of 215 unmarked graves found at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., Canadians had to face the horrific realities Indigenous children and youth had to live while being forced to attend residential schools. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

These days thoughts of Remembrance Day conjure images of chilly, solemn ceremonies, red poppy wreaths and the sound of the Last Post reverberating over silent crowds.

But a century ago, many marked Remembrance Day with long-weekend getaways, since the statutory holiday always fell at the beginning or end of the week.

While other federally recognized holidays are celebrations complete with travel, large meals, and fireworks, The Royal Canadian Legion has worked hard over the decades to make sure Nov. 11 isn’t just another day off for public servants, but a day of reflection.

“The fear is that we will go back to the practice of when it did become a long weekend, and people did not spend the time in reflection or in remembrance, rather, made it an opportunity for a long-weekend trip before the Christmas period started,” said Steven Clark, the executive director of The Royal Canadian Legion.

Now Canada prepares to add another sombre holiday to its shared cultural tradition with the inaugural National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on Sept. 30 — a day to recognize the horrors of Canada’s residential schools, and honour the lost children and survivors.

The holiday grants a paid day off to federally regulated employees and public servants, and some provinces have done the same for their workers.

Public sector unions hope the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation doesn’t suffer the same fate Remembrance Day once did.

“If we do nothing this year, then that may be the way it is for years to come, “ said Chris Aylward, president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada.

Unions have urged members to donate to charities that benefit Indigenous causes and read up on Canada’s Indigenous history and the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

But Aylward acknowledged no one can tell employees how to spend the free time they’ve been granted.

“I really hope that people who are given the day off on Sept. 30 don’t view it as just another day off to do whatever they want. I’m really hoping that people who have the day off on Sept. 30 really use it as an opportunity to take real action to support Indigenous Peoples,” he said.

The enactment of a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation was among 94 calls to action put forward by the TRC.

The law to mark Sept 30 as a national holiday was given royal assent just weeks after what are believed to be 215 unmarked graves were discovered by Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation on the grounds of a residential school in Kamloops, B.C.

Hundreds more potential grave sites were found near residential schools in the months that followed.

“I’ve always believed that we don’t take a moment for those who have experienced this, the survivors of residential schools, and those who were lost through residential schools, and that it’s important that we do that — that we take a moment for them, to understand what this country did to them, to acknowledge that it was wrong, and to commit to not doing it again,” said Murray Sinclair, the recently retired senator who served as chief commissioner of the TRC, in an interview with CBC’s Unreserved.

“Just like they do for veterans who come out of the war — that it’s not just about marching and dressing up and getting some time off from school and closing stores and getting some time off from work, but it’s about remembering what they have done.”

The federal government was to hold an event by the Centennial Flame on Parliament Hill Wednesday night to mark the eve of the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

On Thursday, an opening ceremony is planned on the Hill, followed by a spirit walk to Confederation Park. Other ceremonies are planned across the country and online.

Sinclair told CBC he expects most people in the country won’t be using the day off for the purpose it was intended.

“But next year, there will be one more there, then the year after that there will be one more,” he said.

That is the same philosophy the Legion used to bring Canadians together to remember veterans.

“I think it’s something that you instil in your youth,” Clark said.

Though public servants might have observed Remembrance Day by heading on vacation in the past, the traditions and education have been passed on through generations, Clark said.

That process is beginning now with the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

“It’s a journey that we as a collective, as a society, have to take so that we are made aware of past injustices, aware of where we need to go and guidance on how to get there,” Clark said.

In time, the sound of drums on Sept. 30 may inspire the same type of reflection as the sound of the bugle on Nov. 11.

Laura Osman, The Canadian Press