Georgina Jolibois remembers how proud she felt when Sept. 30 was declared National Truth and Reconciliation Day.
It was her work as an NDP member of Parliament that ultimately led to the special day being set aside.
On October 16, 2017, Jolibois rose in the House of Commons to introduce a private members’ bill to set aside a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
“Mr. Speaker, in the spirit of reconciliation, it is an honour for me to introduce my bill that seeks to turn national Indigenous Peoples day into a statutory holiday,” Jolibois told the house. “The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report stated, ‘Reconciliation is not an Aboriginal problem; it is a Canadian one. Virtually all aspects of Canadian society may need to be reconsidered.’
“My bill seeks to offer an opportunity to all Canadians and all government and community levels to reflect on concrete actions for reconciliation and recognition of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit, their history, their rights, their cultures, and their languages.”
Her legislation, called Bill C-369, proposed June 21 as the day to be set aside.
She told her colleagues, “to reflect on treaty relationships and the legacy of residential schools that continue to be a heavy weight on indigenous peoples. I look forward to getting my bill passed in the House.”
Jolibois recalled that period of her career in an interview with APTN News.
“When it went through the steps in the House of Commons – the third reading- when it went through and when it had the support from the Liberal and the NDP to pass this legislation and make it happen, it was a very proud moment, it was a very incredible time.”
It’s not every day a private members’ bill passes. In fact, it’s rare.
But Jolibois had the support of all parties in the House of Commons, minus the Conservatives who all voted against it. It was a time to celebrate.
On the day it passed the third reading, meaning it was time for the legislation to go to the Senate for review, there were several of Jolibois’ supporters present, including the woman whose orange shirt has become a potent symbol of truth and reconciliation.
“Phyllis Webstad was in the audience when the third reading had gone through and my mom and my niece were there,” said Jolibois. “And there were a number of supportive people who were there as well, former NDP MP Romeo Saganash, and leader Jagmeet Singh and the other NDP MPs were present.
“They were very proud of this accomplishment from the beginning. As an Indigenous person, I feel that it was the right time to make this happen.”
Jolibois said there was a lot of outreach work by her team and a lot of meetings and discussions before the legislation passed.
“My legacy as a leader is always about stepping up and trying to help when I can. But this time, at this place, my work in the House of Commons was about how can we make improvements for Indigenous people across Canada?” Jolibois said.
The day was to remember the children who were taken from their families and sent to institutions – disguised as schools – but set up to assimilate the more than 150,000 First Nation, Inuit and Métis child who attended them. The residential school system operated for more than 160 years. Throughout that time there were reports of abuse and neglect in the chronically underfunded institutions. The last school closed in 1996.
In 2007, the government under former prime minister Stephen Harper signed the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, also known as the IRSSA. According to the federal government, as of 2019, $3.1 billion had been paid out for damages caused by the residential school experience.
A year later, on June 11, 2008, former prime minister Stephen Harper apologized to survivors and their families on behalf of Canadians.
The Harper government also set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, better known as the TRC, which crisscrossed the country and heard from hundreds of survivors about their experience in these institutions. It produced a multi-volume report that included 94 calls to action for government, educational facilities and Canadians in general.
It was the TRC’s call to action 80 which recommended a national holiday be recognized.
“We call upon the federal government, in collaboration with Aboriginal peoples, to establish, as a statutory holiday, a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation to honour Survivors, their families, and communities, and ensure that public commemoration of the history and legacy of residential schools remains a vital component of the reconciliation process,” the TRC said.
Bill C-369, didn’t make it through the Senate after the 2019 federal election was called. Any laws still being considered by the House of Commons or the Senate can’t be completed during an election period and must be reintroduced at the start of the next Parliament.
This is the same election Jolibois, MP for Desnethé—Missinippi—Churchill River, lost to Conservative Gary Vidal.
On June 5, 2021, the Trudeau Liberals, now with a minority government, took the idea and re-introduced it as a government bill called C-5.
It received royal assent after passing unanimously in the Senate.
The decision was fast-tracked following the discovery of 215 unmarked graves at the former Kamloops residential school.
Jolibois, now the mayor of La Loche in northern Saskatchewan, said the work of reconciliation is still essential in her job.
“La Loche is predominantly a Dené community. Both First Nations and Métis live here as well as we do have Canadians from across Canada who are professionals who live with us, and the work is really crucial,“ Jolibois said.
She still works with her council to promote healing, working together and collaborating to advance their issues.
That work will be important in the coming years with new census data showing a rapidly growing, young Indigenous population.
There are 1.8 million Indigenous people in Canada, making up about five per cent of the total population. The Indigenous population grew by 9.4 per cent from 2016 to 2021, almost twice the pace of the non-Indigenous population.
Some have attributed the rise in numbers to more people identifying as Indigenous.
“I have a sense now people are saying this is our cultural background, in my case I’m a Dené woman. And we are very fortunate here in the north, there are people who live off the land, who will still hunt, trap and fish, and live their cultural lifestyle.” Jolibois said. “It’s an incredible time”
On Sept. 30, Jolibois said her community will take the time to pause and remember.
“(It will be) A day of remembrance, and a day of healing, and a day of reflection, and spending time with family and friends and being in the community wearing our orange shirts,” she said.