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Workplace approach to Sept. 30 holiday should be educational and enduring, experts say

Provinces implement mixed response to National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, now a federal statutory holiday


The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on Sept. 30 has received official recognition as a federal statutory holiday. (RiMa Photography/Adobe Stock)

Across Canada, an increased emphasis surrounding Indigenous rights and reconciliation is occurring, inspired by the discovery of several unmarked grave sites across central and western Canada earlier this year, estimated to contain the remains of over 1,800 Indigenous children from the residential school system.

The latest move in bringing these conversations and issues into focus has been the official recognition of a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on Sept. 30 as a federal statutory holiday, fulfilling one of the 94 calls to action from 2015’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

This year’s National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is not just a holiday, but an opportunity, according to Lily Chang, secretary-treasurer of the Canadian Labour Congress in Ottawa.

“As the first year with this day being recognized by the federal government, I certainly hope that many employers will take the time to truly provide opportunity and take leadership with their employees in honouring this particular day.”

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Honouring this day, especially to the level demanded by the gravity of current conversations surrounding Indigenous rights, means providing employees with the proper space and resources to educate themselves on the history and implications of Indigenous treatment across history, workplaces, and the country itself, she said.

“We need to have some education so the types of actions that have to happen can be done in a manner that is meaningful and impactful,” said Chang.

“As an employer, you should be responsible for providing these opportunities and resources, whether that be through letting employees attend events, putting out statements, or just giving the time to recognize this day — even if doesn’t mean a day off.”

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Ongoing reconciliation

The educational opportunities provided by the wider recognition of the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation should not be approached as a single-day strategy, but rather treated as “a kick-start, a precursor” to more longer-term reconciliation efforts, said Kelly Lendsay, CEO of Indigenous Works in Saskatoon.

“That’s the beauty of a day like that, right?” he said. “How are we going to continue the conversation? What can you do as a result of that day, and continue to do that work to month to month and year to year? If we do that, we’re going to advance economic reconciliation.”

One of the strategies Lendsay recommends to employers looking to build longer-term solutions around reconciliation and Indigenous rights is to focus on opportunities in the workplace around Indigenous peoples.

“I think, really, that reconciliation is about building relations, creating new relationships and new opportunities together, and putting a positive spin on it, so that reconciliation doesn’t come across as operating from a place of guilt, but from a place of opportunity,” he said.

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Provincial limitations

Despite the step forward provided by federal recognition, uncertainty remains regarding its effectiveness in meaningfully bringing Indigenous awareness into workplace discourses.

“I think we’ll see a little bit more of a change from it, but I don’t know if we’ll see the larger impact that was hoping to be seen,” said Andrew Caldwell, advisory team lead at Peninsula Canada in Toronto.

Specifically, these hurdles come from the inconsistent implementation and recognition of the Sept. 30 holiday across provinces.

“It’s only a federally-recognized holiday at this moment in time,” Caldwell said. “So, while the federal government has recognized it, only a select few provincial governments have really acknowledged it as a day of understanding and recognition and truth, and truly got the message behind it.”

Among the provincial governments recognizing this day in some form are British Columbia, Manitoba, Newfoundland and Labrador, the Northwest Territories, and Nova Scotia.

Alberta, New Brunswick, Ontario, Quebec, and Saskatchewan are all leaving decisions around implementation and recognition up to individual employers.

Despite these inconsistencies, Caldwell noted that a number of Peninsula’s clients in provinces such as Alberta and Ontario are still taking steps to “actually acknowledge and start the conversation this year.”

Especially for workplaces with ties to Indigenous communities, regardless of province, this issue of reconciliation “is a big deal,” he said. “It’s one that they pride themselves on and push for.”

Jack Burton is a freelance writer in Toronto.

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