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The National Day For Truth and Reconciliation at U of T Law

Reflections on the first National Day For Truth and Reconciliation at U of T Law

The National Day of Truth and Reconciliation marks a challenging day for many Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada. We are called to reflect on our collective history following the discovery of thousands of unmarked graves at Residential School sites this summer. Indigenous nations across the country were consumed by grief in reflecting on this generational loss, the loss of thousands of children who never returned home to their communities. 

Despite this grief, the plight of current generations of Indigenous youth demand that constructive and positive action be taken now. Currently, there are more First Nations youth in care than at the height of the Residential School system. The numbers of youth in care are exacerbated by conditions and symptoms of intergenerational trauma left unaddressed due to the systemic underfunding of social services for First Nations youth. 

Given that, the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation must serve as a day of action, not just idle reflection. While certainly taking the time for humble reflection on our history, September 30 must also capitalize on an opportunity to advance reconciliation in Canada. The Indigenous Law Students’ Association (ILSA) welcomed law students for such an event this year. 

This September 30, ILSA joined with U of T Law’s Elder-in-Residence, Elder Constance Simmonds, to host a guided discussion and film screening. Elder Simmonds opened the event in ‘the good way’ before the virtual screening of Inendi (“She is Absent”). Inendi is a short documentary by creator Sarain Fox which documents the stories of her matriarch, Auntie Mary, a knowledge keeper and survivor of Residential Schools. 

Auntie Mary spoke about her experiences in the Residential Schools, but also the grief and trauma which followed her after she left the schools. This includes the need to initially flee her community in an attempt to escape the trauma, and her resistance to discussing the atrocities which took place due to a fear of reprisal. Ultimately, Auntie Mary discusses her journey of “forgiveness, love, and peace” in overcoming some of her fears and returning home to her nation and community.

A large challenge associated with the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is linking the trauma of Residential Schools with contemporary Indigenous child welfare struggles. At the ILSA event, students were pressed to think critically about the legacy of Residential Schools and how factors such as intergenerational trauma and a lack of access to social services impact First Nations today. The ILSA event also promoted the work of Indigenous lawyers and child welfare organizations working to address the legacy of Residential Schools.  

This includes the saga of human rights complaints filed by the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society (“The Caring Society”). Beginning in 2007, The Caring Society and the Assembly of First Nations filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission alleging Canada discriminated against First Nations children by underfunding social services on reserves. The Tribunal ultimately found that Canada has been discriminating against First Nations children by failing to provide equitable social and child welfare services. Since this landmark ruling, the Tribunal has issued 19 non-compliance or procedural orders for Canada to end the discrimination against First Nations children.

As we look beyond the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, law students can continue to learn about initiatives like The Caring Society’s work in child welfare. While occasions such as Orange Shirt Day merit reflection on the way law has been used to marginalize Indigenous peoples, work done by institutions like The Caring Society demonstrate positive and effective ways to use the law on behalf of First Nations youth. 

Outside of Orange Shirt Day, allies and advocates are encouraged to continue learning about the legacy of the Indian Residential School system today. This can include reading the Executive Summary of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission or the Final Report of the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Students can also take the time to watch films which represent the struggle of Indigenous peoples today, including The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, a film which captures the struggle of Indigenous women in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

Outside of integrating a basic cultural and legal competency regarding Indigenous nations into your practice, students might also consider donating to grassroots Indigenous community organizations, or volunteering or working with organizations like Aboriginal Legal Services here in Toronto. 

Editor’s Note: Tomas Jirousek is a member of the Indigenous Law Students’ Association.

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