Indigenous youth leaders call for a Truth and Reconciliation Day that remembers history, honours survivors and celebrates cultural resilience

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Reconciliation is as much a personal journey as it is a collective one.

Twenty-six-year-old Taylor Behn-Tsakoza, a member of Fort Nelson First Nation and co-chair of the Assembly of First Nations Youth Council, has wrestled with that maxim since walking through Vatican City last spring.

She met Pope Francis as part of an Indigenous delegation urging the Catholic Church to apologize for its role in Canada’s residential school system. Behn-Tsakoza spoke with him for just under 10 minutes, but surrounded by the gilded halls of the Vatican, she became disillusioned.

On the flight back to northern B.C., and since then, she’s reflected on what reconciliation means to her coming from a family of survivors and as a second-generation survivor herself. In those meditations, she understood that reconciliation wasn’t just a collective awakening for a country but a personal journey of healing.

“I think Canada is always trying to shout from the rooftops: ‘Canada as a whole, we’re going to treat Indigenous Peoples better,’” Behn-Tsakoza told Canada’s National Observer.

“And it had me reflecting [on] what I’m doing personally to walk this path,” she said. “To reconcile with Canada, but to also reconcile with my community and my family.”

Now, Behn-Tsakoza and fellow Indigenous leaders Jama Maxie and Dr. Meghan Beals are promoting a positive vision of the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation that centres celebration, education and healing for individuals and communities, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous.

The three were among five Indigenous youth leaders who gave speeches on Monday to the Senate’s Indigenous Peoples committee ahead of the second annual National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on Sept. 30. They spoke about what truth and reconciliation mean to them through personal storytelling and political demands.

The youth delegation was welcomed and heard, Maxie told Canada’s National Observer.

However, the Senate has wrestled with residential school denialism in the past. For years, the Red Chamber included Lynn Beyak, who repeatedly pushed the harmful narrative that residential schools were “well-intentioned,” downplaying the forceful separation of children from their parents and the rampant sexual, physical and emotional abuse that took place in those institutions. Beyak resigned from her post in 2021 shortly after fellow Sen. Mary Jane McCallum introduced a motion seeking to expel Beyak over her “individual racism.”

Since the discovery of 215 unmarked graves last year on the grounds of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., this dark part of Canada's history has been front and centre.

Still, there are some media outlets and pundits who continue to push the narrative that the Kamloops graves are a hoax or concocted for political aims.

For someone like Maxie — whose kokum is a residential school survivor, whose mother survived the ’60s Scoop and who is a survivor of the child foster system and addiction — the lived stories of Indigenous Peoples counteract these harmful narratives.

“I think sometimes it’s unwilful ignorance,” Maxie said, speaking to residential school denialism. “They haven’t sought out actual knowledge and experiences of people in residential schooling.

“A lot of the time, they hear theory or read about residential schooling and they’re able to intellectually debate it,” he added. “It’s really hard to sit down with a survivor and tell them there were no impacts for their descendants.”

Marking the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation could help raise awareness of the history of residential schools and other parts of Canada’s past and present. So far, however, only one province and two territories have followed the federal government’s lead and recognized Sept. 30 as a statutory holiday.

Maxie, Beals and Behn-Tsakoza all agree it should be adopted by every province and territory.

“It is hard for me to even comprehend the reluctance to make this an official holiday,” Beals said.

Behn-Tsakoza chalks it up to capitalism and eurocentrism. Truth and Reconciliation Day as a nationwide holiday would bring with it accountability for Canadians to reckon with the realities of the past, she said.

“All the provinces are operating under a colonial system,” she added. “I think acknowledging [this] day is dismantling that, and that’s terrifying for them.”

For all three Indigenous youth, National Day for Truth and Reconciliation should not only remember those who didn’t return from residential schools or the trauma survivors brought home, but also be a celebration of cultural and spiritual resilience.

“I think it’s so important to show the world that, no, we cannot just get over the trauma, but at the same time, we are healing, processing and rising up through the turmoil for our generations to come,” Beals told Canada’s National Observer in an email interview.

Beals proposed making the traditions of the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation resemble the traditions of Remembrance Day, with a moment of silence and gatherings held in Ottawa and other locations.

Behn-Tsakoza supports this idea because the day is about how Indigenous Peoples and Canada can build awareness, respect and a better path forward, she said.

“If we have that one moment, I think we should do it the most and best that we can to have that generational impact that makes all Canadians aware and respectful of who we are as Indigenous Peoples,” she added.

For Maxie, the day is for every single Indigenous person and community to heal, remember and celebrate.

“I know every individual’s journey is different, but it’s a day to take pride in our culture, it’s a day for us,” he said. “We should … celebrate progression and transcendence towards a better life for our kids and our future generations.”

— With files from David Fraser, The Canadian Press

Matteo Cimellaro / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer

Matteo Cimellaro, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Canada's National Observer