The National Day of Repentance on August 26th provides a solemn space for Indigenous communities in Canada to honor children lost at residential schools. Observed since 2013, this day fosters public awareness of these schools’ traumatic legacy. The Day of Repentance allows Canada as a nation to acknowledge past injustices, express remorse, and continue pursuing reconciliation.
Between the 1880s and 1990s, over 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were forcibly removed from their families and sent to government-funded residential schools aimed at assimilating them into Euro-Canadian culture. Operated by churches, these schools systematically suppressed Indigenous languages, culture, and identity through abuse and isolation. Thousands of children lost their lives at the schools due to disease, poor conditions, malnutrition or neglect.
When the last federally-run residential school closed in 1996, the devastating impacts on survivors, families and communities remained unaddressed. Intergenerational trauma, substance abuse, poverty, and family breakdown persisted. After years of activism by Indigenous leaders, Canada established the National Day of Repentance in 2013 to acknowledge this painful history and honor those who suffered.
Importance of the Day of Repentance
This solemn day of reflection provides:
- A national day to remember the children who never returned from residential schools and to acknowledge their tremendous loss.
- An opportunity for non-Indigenous Canadians to better understand residential schools’ legacy and harms to Indigenous communities.
- A call to churches, government, institutions and all Canadians to officially apologize for complicity in the schools’ abuses.
- A time for Indigenous communities to come together in ceremonies of grieving, communion and healing.
- An affirmation that reconciliation involves concrete societal changes like anti-racism and equitable government policies.
- Encouragement for Canadians to strengthen relations with local Indigenous groups through open dialogue and shared culture.
A Difficult History to Confront
While residential schools existed since the 19th century, recent revelations about their horrors stirred national outrage:
- Over 1,300 confirmed deaths at the church-run schools, with estimates up to 6,000 deaths likely. Children were buried in unmarked graves.
- Systemic emotional, physical and sexual abuse occurred at the schools with minimal accountability. Survivor testimonies detailed their suffering.
- Thousands of children disappeared from the schools. Parents were often uninformed about their child’s death for years.
- Indigenous language and cultural practices were explicitly prohibited and punished under the goal of forced assimilation into European-based traditions.
- Government officials and churches were frequently negligent and complicit in perpetuating abuses at the schools for decades.
Confronting this shameful history continues being profoundly difficult for Indigenous communities and Canada as a whole. Yet only through truth-sharing and tragedy acknowledgment can collective healing occur.
Activities and Events on the Day of Repentance
Diverse events mark Canada’s annual Day of Repentance including:
- Prayer services, vigils and memorial ceremonies to honor children who died, often with education components.
- Traditional smudging ceremonies, sacred fires, drum circles, songs and dances to bring spiritual comfort.
- Sharing circles where residential school survivors can recount their experiences and be witnessed with compassion.
- Speeches from Indigenous elders, leaders and community allies about the schools’ continuing impacts.
- Workshops on reconciliation, Indigenous cultural sensitivity and being an active bystander against racism.
- Feasts centering traditional foods to nourish grieving communities.
- Volunteer initiatives like care packages for survivors or fundraisers for memorials and education programs.
- Lowering flags to half-mast and moments of silence to reflect on the injustices.
How to Stand in Solidarity
Non-Indigenous people can mark the Day of Repentance through:
- Donating to Indigenous-led reconciliation programs and residential school survivor resources.
- Reading survivors’ accounts or visiting memorial exhibits to grow in understanding.
- Participating in demonstrations, vigils and appeals for government action on key issues.
- Contacting elected officials and institutions to demand improved rights, programs and funding for First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities.
- Speaking out against racism and discrimination when witnessed, to foster safe, just communities.
- Volunteering with local Friendship Centres, powwows, mutual aid networks and other Indigenous groups.
- Amplifying Indigenous voices and initiatives on social media to spread public awareness.
Quiet reflection or taking action – every effort toward reconciliation matters.
Conclusion: Healing the Past, Hope for the Future
The National Day of Repentance provides a national moment to confront hard truths, honor stolen lives, and continue the ongoing work of healing. While the residential school system’s impacts can never be undone, Canadians must advance the rights and wellbeing of Indigenous communities under the cloud of this tragedy. By listening to survivors’ truths, embracing cultural exchange, and walking the path of justice together, we plant seeds of hope for generations to come.