Politicians, bureaucrats say next year’s truth and reconciliation day needs to be handled differently 

Elena Matechuk Joss works for the Yukon government and is one of the thousands of bureaucrats in the territory who got Sept. 30, the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, off.

Matechuk Joss isn’t First Nation, Inuit, or Métis and says she was “embarrassed” that she had the day off while many Indigenous Peoples likely did not.

“I don’t think that only public servants having the day off was really that fair… Really for the people who the day is for are not getting it off unless they work for government or municipal,” she says.

It’s been just over a week since Canada observed its first National Day of Truth and Reconciliation.

However, the handling of the new federal holiday has some people, like Matechuck Joss, upset.

In the Yukon, only federal and territorial employees and those with collective bargaining agreements were guaranteed a paid day off.

It also resulted in the closure of all public schools.

But in other parts of the country, it was a normal day – like in Saskatchewan.

Not all provinces on board

“If they truly want to talk about reconciliation, they have to stop giving lip service and stop doing things half-measures,” says Betty Nippi-Albright, an NDP opposition MLA in Saskatchewan, referencing the province’s decision not to designate make Sept. 30 a provincial statutory holiday.

Nippi-Albright, who is from Kinistin Saulteaux Nation and is a residential school survivor, says last month her office was inundated with calls from people who wanted the day off for reflection.

“They want to learn about it. They want a day to reflect on what happened to us at residential school…They want to have a paid holiday,” she says.

In an email statement to APTN, a Saskatchewan government spokesperson says the province is not recognizing the holiday as it would require legislative change to its employment act.

As a result, provincial employees in the private sector or those without collective bargaining agreements that observe statutory holidays did not have a guaranteed paid day off last week.

While the province did lower flags at provincial government buildings to half-mast and lit certain park lights in key locations of the Wascana Centre orange, Nippi-Albright says more could have been done.

She says she would have like to have seen Sept. 30 declared a provincial holiday and the treaties and the Metis flag lowered at half-mast instead.

“Our provincial government is not listening to the people of this province, it speaks volumes about their commitment to reconciliation,” she says.

While no province or territory has yet to pass legislation that would officially mark Sept. 30 as a statutory holiday for non-federally regulated employees, Yukon, Northwest Territories, B.C., Manitoba, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador and P.E.I. have formally recognized the day and designated it as a day-off for K-12 students.

However, Saskatchewan, Alberta, Ontario and New Brunswick have decided against recognizing the holiday. Nunavut also did not recognize the holiday this year but plans to in the future.

In Alberta, some employers including the Alberta Treasury Branch gave people the day off. But Alberta Health Service and the Alberta Gaming, Liquor and Cannabis Commission didn’t, prompting the public union to file a grievance with those employers.

In August Alberta’s Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief Marlene Poitras has demanded the province acknowledge Sept. 30 as a provincial holiday – a call to action that went unanswered.

In Ontario, Chief Mark Hill of Six Nations of the Grand River likewise published a letter addressed to Premier Doug Ford expressing disappointment that the provincial government declined to observe the holiday.

“It is not enough that leaders give a few remarks on occasion, only to let pass more formal opportunities to officially acknowledge where we’ve come from and where we need to go,” the letter stated.

Hill called for Ontario “to join British Columbia and the Northwest Territories, and to lead other provinces, in full, official commemoration of this day.”

Matechuk Joss notes she previously worked in a division of the private sector which was federally regulated, occasionally leaving her working without childcare on statutory holidays.

In honour of Sept. 30, Matchuk Joss worked with the Yukon Helpers Network (YHN), an online community support group, to raise donations of $150 for Indigenous people in the Yukon to use towards childcare so they could take time to themselves to reflect on the day.

“I thought it would be nice to do something not only for those with children but those who should be taking a day off. The day is for them,” she says

Matechuk Joss says YHN helped raise $4,210 and that the funds left over were donated to the Committee on Abuse in Residential Schools Society (CAIRS).

She says going forward she would like to see government employees take part in truth and reconciliation efforts that would not entail them getting an entire day off.

“Maybe they could do something in a different way that would actually have the impact intended because I’m guessing a lot of people who had the day off didn’t actually take the time to do anything about truth and reconciliation,” she says.

The holiday also prompted the Yukon Human Rights Commission to call on the territorial government to ensure all Indigenous people in the territory get the day off in the future, not just federal and territorial employees.

Birju Dattani, director of the commission, says he recently learned the territorial government did not have time to adequately prepare for the holiday, and that the minister of the Public Service Commission has stated they plan to make the day one where all Yukoners can take time to commemorate it in the future.

“From what we understand they have committed to making sure next year is different and we are happy about that,” Dattani says.

Reporter / Whitehorse

Sara Connors is originally from Nova Scotia and has a Journalism degree from the University of King’s College in Halifax. After graduation she worked in South Korea for two years as an English Language teacher and freelance journalist. After she returned home in 2019 she worked behind the scenes at CTV Atlantic in Halifax before joining APTN's Yukon bureau in July 2020.