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Statement by Mary Gordon, Roots of Empathy Founder/President

Our Canadian offices, virtual and head office, will be closed Friday September 30th, the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation and Orange Shirt Day. We are providing this day to our Canadian staff to learn the truth about residential schooling, its impacts to Indigenous people, and to honour survivors of residential schools and their communities. We are asking our staff to share their learnings so that our organization can reflect upon them, move forward together as Canadians, and continue to inform our mission “to build caring, peaceful and civil societies through the development of empathy in children and adults.”

The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation stemmed from 94 calls to action in a 2015 report from the Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) that aim to repair harm caused by residential schools and move forward to reconcile Canadians and Indigenous peoples.

It coincides with Orange Shirt Day, which is an Indigenous-led grassroots commemoration that began at an event in May 2013, where survivor, Phyllis Webstad, a Northern Secwepemc (Shuswap) woman told her story. In 1973, she was six years old and living on Dog Creek Reserve in Fraser Valley British Columbia with her grandmother. She and her grandmother went to the local store to buy a “shiny orange shirt” that she was excited to wear to her first day of school. Her school was a residential school, and when she arrived, she was stripped and her own clothes were taken away.

“I didn’t understand why they wouldn’t give it back to me, it was mine!” she said. “The colour orange has always reminded me of that and how my feelings didn’t matter, how no one cared and how I felt like I was worth nothing. All of us little children were crying, and no one cared.” [i]

Phyllis Webstad further  revealed the insidiousness of how residential schooling harmed generations of her family.

“I was 13 years old and in grade 8 when my son Jeremy was born. Because my grandmother and mother both attended residential school for 10 years each, I never knew what a parent was supposed to be like. With the help of my aunt, Agness Jack, I was able to raise my son and have him know me as his mother.

I went to a treatment centre for healing when I was 27 and have been on this healing journey since then. I finally get it, that the feeling of worthlessness and insignificance, ingrained in me from my first day at the mission, affected the way I lived my life for many years. Even now, when I know nothing could be further than the truth, I still sometimes feel that I don’t matter. Even with all the work I’ve done!”

The colour orange and the date grew into a significant symbolic movement. September was the time in our history when Indigenous children were taken to residential schools and this timing allows us to reflect deeply at the start of the school year about what was taken away from Indigenous children – culture, language, freedom, self-esteem; and how important it is that “Every Child Matters”.

As we have encouraged our staff, we encourage our supporters, as outlined by the TRC, to learn and use this day, “to honour survivors, their families, and communities” as “public commemoration of the history and legacy of residential schools remains a vital component of the reconciliation process.”

The Honourable Justice Murray Sinclair, whose Ojibway name is Mizanay Gheezhik, was the Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada amid a lifetime of public service and social justice work. We were honoured that he graciously accepted the Roots of Empathy Award in Social Justice in 2021 at our Research Symposium, and spoke about reconciliation.

In his acceptance, His Honour explained that it was challenging to get Canadians to care about the oppression of Indigenous people. “The best way to get them to see that this was about children is to make [Canadians] think about their own children, make [Canadians] think about what they would feel like and how they would feel if this would happen to [Canadians], to their children.” He concluded with, “And that’s what empathy is – empathy is the ability to put yourself into the place of the other person and look at it from the other side of the street.”

If you are non-indigenous person, how can you do more to put ourselves into the place of the Indigenous peoples?

With the day on September 30th, here are some suggestions to reflect on the Indigenous experience and honour the survivors:

1. Start reading the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report(s)

2. Please wear an orange shirt and read more about survivors like Phyllis Webstad.

3. Consume education materials. His Honour Justice Sinclair has reflected that, “Education is what got us into this mess, and education will get us out.”

  • On Day 5 of Truth and Reconciliation Week, Sept 30, find Remembering the Children — Live broadcast from 1 to 2 pm ET. The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation and APTN have come together to produce a one-hour commemorative gathering presented in English, French, Inuktitut, and Cree that will broadcast live at 1:00 pm from LeBreton Flats Park in Ottawa. Tune in to hear Survivors’ personal reflections as well as key speaker, His Honour Murray Sinclair, speak about their experiences and the importance of reconciliation. The commemoration will include performances by Chubby Cree, Dennis Saddleman, and many more. The special gathering will serve as an opportunity for everyone to grieve, heal and learn about this tragic history. Check your local listings on the day to see if you can find this broadcast.

4. Go to a commemorative event

  • There are some listed here on the official TRC site but check your local listings and your sources for others, or what may be around you.

This is a small list. There are many possibilities to reflect on past harms, and learn about Indigenous communities and cultures today.

As the Founder of Roots of Empathy, my journey to the truth began at 9 years old. I discovered the untruths in the history of Indigenous people in Newfoundland. It was the first time I realized evil existed.  At that time, I thought that if I had the chance, I would like to be part of telling the truth. The Roots of Empathy organization has from its beginning valued telling historical truth and advocating for social justice. Our organization continues to be committed to these principles.

By finding our common humanity through empathy, we all move forward together.

Mary Gordon

Roots of Empathy Founder/President