Orange Shirt Day organizer pleased after bill creating national day for truth and reconciliation receives royal assent

WatchFor Eddie Charlie, a residential school survivor and Vancouver Island resident, a national day for truth and reconcilation is something he’s wanted to see happen for years.

WARNING: This story contains content and language that is distressing.

A federal bill establishing Sept. 30 as national truth and reconciliation day —  an annual statutory holiday commemorating the horrific legacy of Canada’s residential school system — received royal assent earlier this week. 

It comes following the discovery of 215 Indigenous children buried at a former Kamloops residential school last month. 

For Eddie Charlie, a residential school survivor and Vancouver Island resident, it’s something he’s wanted to see happen for years.

“I had a vision about creating a law that would honour all residential school survivors and I wanted to make it a national holiday,” said Charlie, who pushed for the creation of a day for truth and reconciliation back in 2017 after years of internalizing his own past.

When Charlie was four he was taken from his home and brought to Kuper Island residential school just outside Chemainus, where he says students were stripped of their culture, beaten and raped repeatedly.

“For me, residential school was bad not only because they starved us but because they beat us for speaking our language and practicing and our culture. They separated us from our family, and we forgot how to function as a family. We forgot how to love and care for our own brothers, our own sisters, and distress grew there,” he recalled.

“They sexually abused many of the children. And when I say sexually abused, I mean, like, for many children, at first, it was being forced to touch staff at the residential school in a sexual way, and then been touched in a sexual way later themselves. And then it actually got worse. After that, they actually started raping a lot of the children. I want people to hear that word rape because many of the children were raped, and not just once, not twice, but many, many times,” he added.

READ MORE: Senate unanimously passes bill creating national day for truth and reconciliation

For decades, Charlie internalized all of that trama.

“I was too ashamed to talk about what the staff were doing to us in the school. No man wants to stand up and tell people that these priests were using me in a sexual nature,” he recalled.

Then in 2014 while taking Indigenous Studies at Camosun College, a fellow classmate approached him about bringing Orange Shirt Day to Victoria.

“I really believed that his story really needed to come forward,” said Kristin Spray, Charlie’s classmate who helped organize Orange Shirt Day in Victoria. “Because I’d heard other people’s stories as well, I knew there were thousands more kids out there who need their voices heard too.”

But Charlie was initially resistant to the whole thing.

The first year that she asked me, I refused to answer because in my heart was lots of anger about what happened in residential school and how nobody believed what was bad about residential school,” he said.

Eventually, Charlie was convinced and the two have organized the walk ever since. Then in 2017, he began a push to make Orange Shirt Day a National Holiday.

“I wrote a letter to Murray Rankin who was MP for Victoria at the time and I pointed out that in the 994 recommendations [in the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report] number 80 says they wanted to create a national stat holiday to honour residential school survivors and the legacy of what happened in residential school,” Charlie said. 

Rankin would take the bill to the house of commons, to try and make Sept. 30 Orange Shirt Day a national holiday. But the bill didn’t pass, leaving Charlie on an endless pursuit to make it happen. 

“I start writing to every MP in the Liberal Party,” Charlie said. “Then I wrote a letter to every senator and the Liberal Party and I told them my story as a residential school survivor, and how will we need to honor the Indigenous people who experienced residential school and their families.”

Charlie spoke to any politician who would listen right up until the bill making Sept. 30 a national day of truth and reconciliation was finally passed.

“When we heard that they passed the bill, we lost it,” he said. “All that writing to every single MP and senator and trying to create relationships with the government [paid off].”

Charlie says it is the memories of residential school that motivate him to continue telling the stories of the residential schools.

“For me, as a father and now a grandfather, I think about my children and I actually get goosebumps thinking about somebody forcing my children to experience the same thing,” said Charlie. “I don’t want that to happen, I don’t want any parent on these lands to experience the same thing that residential school survivors experienced.”

While he is saddened that the discovery of a tragedy was what it took to make the day official, Charlie is thrilled the conversation is happening again.

“I hope that Justin Trudeau and his government will now start having conversations with Indigenous leaders, and Indigenous communities where we are given an equal voice to everybody else.” 

Support services are available for anyone impacted by the news.

A National Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day at 1-866-925-4419.

The B.C. KUU-US Crisis Line Society also has 24-hour services available toll-free at 1-800-588-8717 or online here. A youth line is also available at 250-723-2040, and an adult line is available at 250-723-4050.

RELATED: How you can help support residential schools survivors and reconciliation

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