The following is a guest editorial by Alexandra Holyk, editor of Student, a publication of the Ukrainian Canadian Students’ Union (SUSK), third-year journalism student at Ryerson University in Toronto, and online editor at The Eyeopener, Ryerson University’s independent student newspaper.
As Ukrainians around the world mark the 80th anniversary of the tragedy of Babyn Yar, the Ukrainian diaspora community in Canada also honors the victims of yet another tragedy.
Ukrainian Canadian students observed the first National Day of Truth and Reconciliation on September 30 – a federal statutory holiday honoring the lost children and survivors of residential schools, their families and communities.
In a press release published on its website, the Ukrainian Canadian Students’ Union (SUSK) said it recognizes “the ever-present legacy of residential schools, specifically on the welfare and wellbeing of Indigenous peoples.”
“As a Ukrainian-Canadian community, we recognize our role as Canadian settlers as uninvited guests on the land, and we strive to continuously educate ourselves on Indigenous history in Canada,” SUSK’s press release reads.
The federal holiday was enacted in June, after it was revealed that the bodies of 215 children were found in May at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in Kamloops, B.C.
Residential schools were an effort by the Canadian government to assimilate Indigenous children and erase their culture. Between 1831 and 1998, there were 140 federally-run residential schools operating across the country. It is estimated that more than 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children attended these schools, where rates of abuse were high and many never saw their families again.
In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released 94 calls to action following years of consultations with Indigenous communities and residential school survivors. However, since being announced six years ago, very little action has been taken by the Canadian government.
While SUSK has always strived to promote Ukrainian culture and heritage to the broader Ukrainian and Canadian communities, SUSK president Danya Pankiw told The Ukrainian Weekly that the organization is focused on incorporating inclusion, equity and diversity in its policies and mandate.
“Going forward, we have … amended our bylaws and constitution to enact a new position of Inclusion and Diversity Officer …. Their role is to really put SUSK’s mandate forward with all these initiatives, with advocacy, with inclusion, with diversity and equity,” Ms. Pankiw said.
September 30 also marked Orange Shirt Day. It is a day of recognition based on the story of residential school survivor Phyllis Webstad. In 2013, Ms. Webstad told her story about wearing a new orange shirt purchased for her by her grandmother when she was sent to St. Joseph Mission Residential School. The shirt was quickly stripped off of her and it became a symbol of the stripping away of culture, freedom and self-esteem experienced by Indigenous children over generations.
Ukrainians have been settling in Canada since the late-19th century. As a community that has faced many hardships in our homeland as well as in the diaspora, it is important that we also recognize the hardships faced by Indigenous peoples in the countries we now call home. Though the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation is observed on September 30, we must continue our efforts toward reconciliation by educating ourselves on Indigenous history and culture every day, and by standing in solidarity with Indigenous peoples as they continue in the fight for their fundamental rights.