Town staff, elected officials, and residents assemble Thursday morning to mark Truth and Reconciliation Day in Pelham. DON RICKERS

Staff, most of Town Council gather for dawn ceremony

Last Thursday, Pelham marked Canada’s inaugural National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, a new federal statutory holiday that coincides with Orange Shirt Day, with a sunrise ceremony. The day of acknowledgment was enacted earlier this summer, after multiple mass unmarked graves of hundreds of Indigenous children, who died at residential schools they were forced to attend, were discovered.

The holiday is one of the 94 “calls to action” presented by the federal Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in 2015, which urged governments to address the damage inflicted by the residential school experience. To date, only a handful of the calls to action have been fulfilled.

At the 7:15 AM ceremony outside Pelham Town Hall, the “Every Child Matters” flag was raised at sunrise, and then, along with the provincial and national flags on display, was lowered to half-mast for the day. The commemorative flag, commissioned by three First Nations artists, had been smudged with sweetgrass and sage to honour the missing and the survivors of residential schools.

Pelham CAO David Cribbs led those assembled in a period of reflection, saying that “the increased prominence of this solemn occasion is a crucial step to ensure Canadians give this matter the attention it deserves. It is important that we recognize residential schools as a form of cultural genocide, that continues to have an enduring effect on Indigenous peoples across the country. Today we invite the people of Niagara to reflect on the systemic oppression and discriminations that indigenous people have suffered. Our goal is to build a better community for everyone—simple acknowledgement of our past is insufficient, offering apologies in itself is not enough.”

Lisa Haun and Ron Kore were the only Town Councillors not present.

Mayor Marvin Junkin delivered a unity statement on behalf of Niagara Region, and Deputy Mayor John Wink read aloud an acknowledgement of Pelham’s existence on Indigenous treaty land, which now precedes all Town Council meetings.

A senior kindergarten student at St. Alexander School, River Coutu, attended the service with his mother, Nancy. River is part-Metis, and lives in Pelham with his family.

“We came out today to show our support for the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation,” said Nancy. “River is learning about his ancestors and culture. He got up early this morning, and wanted to offer his help in raising the flag. I told him, ‘Yes, they need our spirit to help raise that flag.’”

Regional Chair Jim Bradley released a statement, noting that “September 30 is a chance for us all to stand in solidarity with Indigenous peoples across the country, and learn from the stories of residential school survivors, their families, and communities.” He indicated that the Region has introduced new mandatory training for staff related to the history of Indigenous people in Niagara and the legacy of the residential school system, via videos developed by the Fort Erie Native Friendship Centre. The Town of Pelham has enacted similar training for its municipal employees.

September 30 is now a statutory holiday for federally regulated businesses. For provincially regulated businesses, observation is optional.

Coincidentally, the federal government’s appeals of two human rights tribunal rulings, concerning First Nations child welfare compensation and protection, were dismissed last Wednesday, upholding a 2019 decision that ordered Ottawa to pay $40,000 to thousands of First Nations children and their families. In addition, an Ontario judge rebuked the government and the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation for not honouring a revenue-sharing agreement made over a decade ago with 132 First Nations, in a ruling which could cost the government tens of millions of dollars in compensation.