September 30 is Orange Shirt Day, which is dedicated to raising awareness about the residential school system and its traumatic, inter-generational impact on Indigenous peoples in Canada. On this day we reflect on the legacy of residential schools, which were the centrepiece of a policy of cultural genocide against Indigenous peoples instituted by the Canadian government. Today we are also mindful of the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on First Nation, Inuit, and Métis communities and the barriers that remain to truth and reconciliation.

Orange Shirt Day was inspired by the experience of residential school survivor Phyllis Jack Webstad, who had a new orange shirt confiscated on her first day at residential school. Under the residential schools system, Indigenous parents were forced to send their children away under threat of prosecution. Indigenous languages, traditions, teachings, practices, and customs were prohibited and denigrated. Children did not see family members for months or years at a time. Death, disease, malnourishment, and sexual and physical abuse were common. It is estimated that over 6,000 children died.

The consequences of this abuse have been passed down to subsequent generations. Unhealed wounds remain in the lives of many Indigenous people who were taught to be ashamed of who they are. The impact of inter-generational trauma is reinforced by racist attitudes that continue to permeate Canadian society. Since the last residential school closed in 1996, former students have pressed for recognition and restitution, resulting in the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement in 2007 and a formal public apology by the Canadian government in 2008. In total, an estimated 150,000 First Nation, Inuit, and Métis children attended residential schools.

The COVID-19 pandemic has served to exacerbate structural inequalities that are both a legacy of the residential school system and a result of Canada’s overall poor record in protecting the rights of Indigenous peoples. According to Human Rights Watch, Whereas Federal and provincial governments have urged  handwashing and social distancing as Canada’s best defence against the virus, many First Nations communities lack access to clean water and inadequate funding for on-reserve housing, which has led to severe overcrowding, making social distancing difficult.

Indigenous people in Canada also have high rates of underlying health conditions such as diabetes or tuberculosis (TB) – diseases associated with poverty or exclusion. People ill with both TB and Covid-19 may have poorer treatment outcomes, especially if TB treatment is interrupted. Patients with diabetes may also be at higher risk from severe illness from Covid-19.

Many Indigenous people also face discrimination in accessing health care services. In remote Northern communities, many nursing stations are ill-equipped and understaffed. Travel to medical centers is expensive and challenging due to current travel restrictions. Some Indigenous communities also do not have access to the personal protective equipment (PPE) they need – and this does not even begin to cover the mental health impact these communities will face moving forward.

CUPE Ontario urges the Federal and provincial governments to step up and provide Indigenous communities the support they need during this pandemic and to end all barriers to health care services. CUPE Ontario urges continued acknowledgement, and compensation for, the suffering of victims of residential schools. It urges partners in the residential schools project, in particular the Catholic Church, to acknowledge and apologize for their role if they have not already done so. It urges adherence to all 94 calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It calls on Canadian government and society to redouble their efforts to achieve meaningful reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

The members of CUPE Ontario acknowledge that we inhabit the traditional territory of Indigenous peoples dating back countless generations. We understand the vital role we have to play in the process of reconciliation, by acknowledging those traditional territories at the beginning of all union meetings and by fostering the engagement of Indigenous workers in our movement.

The CUPE Ontario Indigenous Council promotes and defends the rights of all Indigenous workers in CUPE – some of whom are themselves survivors of the residential schools system – and seeks to raise awareness about the impact of the residential schools among our members and in our communities. Learn more about the Council and its activities here: