In this episode of OPSEU/SEFPO Talk, President Warren (Smokey) Thomas speaks with Chair of the Indigenous Circle, Krista Maracle, about the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation and the significance of observing Orange Shirt Day.
(0:00) Smokey: Hello everyone, welcome to OPSEU/SEFPO talk. I’m Smokey Thomas, President of OPSEU/SEFPO and today I’m here with Krista Maracle, and we’re going to be talking about the newly recognized National Day for Truth and Reconciliation and the significance of Orange shirt Day.
We’re here in our new OPSEU studio, socially distanced, so we’ll get right to it.
OPSEU/SEFPO proudly represents many indigenous members. Indigenous members of our union have been active in the union through the work on the Indigenous Circle and the Indigenous mobilization team. Again, joining me today is the chair of the Indigenous Circle, Krista Maracle. Welcome Krista.
(00:44) Krista: Thanks for having me Smokey.
Smokey: I would like to properly introduce you at this time for those who may not know you. Krista is a lab technician with the University of Health Network. She is also Chair of the Indigenous Circle and Chair of the Equity Chairs. Krista is also the First Vice President of OPSEU/SEFPO Local 571 and a past Executive Board Member for Region 5. And I recall correctly you have a seat at the OFL, don’t you?
Krista: I do, yes. I’m the OFL FNMI Circle.
Smokey: Yeah, so you’re on the executive board of the OFL. Again, thanks for being here. Is there anything, just by a way of introduction to yourself before we get into the questions, or anything you want to say?
(1:33) Krista: Well, I think introducing myself in my traditional way might be helpful for everybody. (Speaks in native tongue) So that was just me saying “Hello, my name is Krista Maracle and my spirit name is sunshine butterfly”.
(1:45) Smokey: Thank you. Folks, I’m going to ask Krista some questions. I really do believe you’ll find it very interesting and enlightening. What’s the history and the significance of Orange Shirt Day, and how can OPSEU/SEFPO continue to bring awareness across our membership in recognizing and commemorating this day?
(2:09) Krista: Orange Shirt Day started with a woman by the name of Phyllis Webstad, who was all very proud that her mother bought her this orange shirt before her first day of school, at the St. Joseph’s Missions School in BC. Except that when she arrived at the school they took all of her clothes including her orange shirt. A lot of what Orange Shirt Day has to do with is remembrance of what happened to the children in residential schools and how it felt to have all of your things taken away from you. There’s also a book that’s written about that day and how she felt and everything and it’s very important for people to think about what happened in residential schools and to remember what happened. It’s not a pleasant part of the past but it’s something that can’t be forgotten. Because if we forget about it then Indigenous people will cease to exist basically.
(3:10) As far as OPSEU, to bring awareness across our membership and to commemorate the day, it’s great to wear an orange shirt on that day. I know in schools children will learn about Orange Shirt Day and the significance of residential schools, but it’s also important for OPSEU members to actually spread the message about Orange Shirt Day and talk about residential schools and learn about the history and what happened to Indigenous people when they went there.
(3:36) Smokey: It’s a shameful part of our history as a country and I agree completely. We will also put some links out to where people can find that book. On the website after we post the podcast as well. Thank you for that.
So the Federal government recently passed legislation to make September 30 a federal statutory holiday called the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. Can you give us a bit of history on that and how has this legislation been received within the Indigenous community and does it go far enough?
(4:18) Krista: The idea of a federal statutory holiday came out of the truth and reconciliation report as one of the 94 calls to action. It was because we needed a day that would be represented for truth and reconciliation. The bill went forward a number of years ago but never made it through before the legislator closed because of an election. So when it was brought back up we were all very excited that it actually made it through a lot faster than it did the time before. Now it is a federal statutory holiday. It’s unfortunate though that it’s not been mandated as a provincial holiday as well, so that everybody can get it. Basically for Indigenous people, it’s a good start. It’s something for people to start learning about the history of residential schools and what it actually means to know about the truth. Because, before you can reconcile you need to know the truth. That’s the part of the truth and reconciliation. A lot of it is making people have to learn a little bit more. And it is going to be self-discovery. Being able to hold events on Orange Shirt Day is also a big thing for the Indigenous community. Now many people in the community also think that it shouldn’t necessarily be a day off, especially for children. We want them to learn about it and it would be better for them to stay in school to be able to learn more about Orange Shirt Day. But make it a day, the whole day at school to learn about residential schools. So there’s a bit of mixed emotions about whether or not it’s a good idea or not. But the Indigenous community says it’s a start, to say the government is actually recognizing Indigenous people need this.
(6:06) Smokey: So on that as a union, we’re trying to get employers to have that holiday included but of course that would have to come up during collective bargaining and we’ll try and bargain it. Some of the contracts, the OPS contract for example, I think we may have a shot there. I’ve actually written to the Treasury Board Minister and the Minister of Labor saying the language in the collective agreement speaks to this and you should just recognize it, but we haven’t heard back. But we’re trying to get it included.
I like the diversity of use, because I think the education is key and I’m old enough to remember the closing of those last residential schools and we didn’t learn anything about it in school. Except I had one high school teacher that actually taught us about it and got in trouble for doing that.
Can you share some information for our members about the June 21st campaign and the work on that campaign?
(7:12) Krista: As the Indigenous Circle for OPSEU there’s a lot of other indigenous people have really been pushing June 21st as a statutory holiday, because that is the national day for Indigenous people. It is recognized by the United Nations as well, as an international day for recognition of Indigenous people. So our campaign has been out there trying to get the support of MPPs to at least try to get something in the province to recognize it. The federal government recognizes it as a day but not obviously as a holiday, just as a day of recognition. But we would like to see June 21st as a statutory holiday. Despite all of the people saying it too close to July 1st, but that’s why it’s such an important day. Because we should be recognizing the Indigenous people who were here first before you recognize Canada and its birthday. I know our campaign and they have been working hard and they’ve been putting together more things to do similar to our pow wow. Unfortunately with Covid its put a bit of a bumper on that.
(8:16) Smokey: well we know Covid has changed everything. But it will come to an end, some time. Then we’ll go back to the work. I’ve been invited and attended a pow wow and for anyone who’s never been to one, it’s quite an amazing experience, actually.
Krista: It’s important for people to go and experience it and that’s what June 21st is all about. It’s about experiencing the Indigenous culture.
(8:38) Smokey: And it’s all part of the history of Canada. If we really want to know what Canada is all about, I think it’s vital. Especially our young folks and so those memories don’t get lost and the history doesn’t get lost.
In OPSEU we’ve sponsored conferences in the past in Akwesasne and we did work with Senator Murray Sinclair on truth and reconciliation commission recommendations and we’ve done a lot of work, you and I have done a lot of work, the circle has done a lot of work. I’ve actually had the honor speaking to the Chiefs of Ontario about our We Own It campaign and I was careful to recognize that you were here first but these public services mean a lot to us all. We have developed some good relationships and Krista a lot of that is because of your hard work. Your hard work with the Circle has made that happen.
What do you think, for our members and us as the union, what can we keep doing and is there some more we can do to build relationships with Indigenous communities all across the province?
I know in Region 7 the Sacred Fire, the board members and activists out there have been there every day and helping keeping the fire going. We’ve put money as a union towards it, to help evacuations from the Wasa communities in the north that are in danger of being burned to the ground cause of the wild fires.
So we do that kinds of stuff, but what is it that we can do? If you have some ideas of everyday stuff and campaign stuff that the union can do, to try and get people interested and learning the history and maybe learning more about the cultures.
(10:31) Krista: One of the big things that’s great for OPSEU is our partnership with the Mississaugas. I think that entering more partnerships with different groups throughout Ontario will actually strengthen OPSEU and its ability to work with Indigenous people. That’s where the biggest work is going to is trying to get Indigenous people to trust the union. As we know, a lot of Indigenous people they don’t trust things like unions because they’re very colonialist structures and it’s making OPSEU into a more friendly environment. A lot of people have said they’ve seen us out at the Sacred Fire, at different events like that. You’ve gotten people to go out and help 1492 landback lane in Caledonia. We’ve done a lot of work with smaller events and things like that. We’ve helped with the Shoal Lake #40. So it’s about looking at different Indigenous causes that are actually out there and helping them along. Our water campaign has been building up steam. We’ve got another water day event coming up. We’re really hoping that OPSEU members will get behind and actually want to come and learn more about why water is so sacred especially to Indigenous people. But we also have other things we’d like to do as well. A lot of it is about educating. So I would really encourage members to actually take the Indigenous courses. I know right now with Covid it’s a little hard because our courses are made for in person, having actual personal contact.
Smokey: Yea, to take part in and to experience it.
(12:15) Krista: it’s really hard to smudge over zoom, as we’ve learnt through this whole pandemic. It’s very hard to get that feeling across, as well as to experience drumming first hand. And even being able to physically do the crafts. But that is something we will get back to that. Until we can people can join in on the different events that are happening online. There’s a number of absolutely amazing videos and movies that have come out about Indigenous people and the struggles that they faced. It would be good for people if they wanted to do watch parties. We did one a year ago with the OFL for the movie Invasion, about the land defenders out in BC. Defending against the pipeline and everything out there. And there’s more of them like that. So it would be great for OPSEU members to get behind more of those things and learn a little bit more about Indigenous people. Because that will get you close to getting Indigenous people wanting to come in and join. They’ll see the OPSEU members actually care.
Smokey: Yes, so we have organized workers on reserves and I believe we’re the first union to ever do that. That was in Cornwall and it was voluntary recognition. So the chief and the council actually gave us recognition. That was the hard work of working with the community, getting to know each other and learning. And you’re right about building trust; that takes a long time, right? Not so much anymore but it takes time. Why would they just trust us? (both laugh).
Krista: We don’t trust very easily in the Indigenous community.
Smokey: But trust is earned.
(13:56) Krista: It is. And showing that OPSEU actually cares is making room for Indigenous peoples another thing. That’s going to go a long way.
Smokey: I think we’ve done, as a union, and again the credit goes to the circle and all the work you’ve done over the years, pushing the union when we needed a push to do more and I think as a union we do, do a lot. I agree with you. And that’s to the credit of the circle. And also to the credit of the Executive Board and union general because we support all your efforts.
(12:28) Krista: We’ve had a lot of support from different locals and things like that. That will step up and join in our campaigns, like with our Red Dress campaign. The number of locals, as soon as we said “come buy a pin” they didn’t care what the price was they just wanted to give to the cause. So they’d learn about what the red dress campaign was about, which is about missing and murdered Indigenous women. It’s great to know when you’re walking around a room and you see everyone with a red pin on and you know that they mean it when they’re wearing that pin.
Smokey: Yes, that’s true. Again, for the movies and the watch party and stuff, at the end of the podcast we can put some links up for people to have a look at and we’ll put it up on the website as well.
Krista: That would be great.
(15:11) Smokey: Could you explain, because it’s quite a fascinating explanation, the scared fire in Thunder Bay? We have our three board members out there. Erin, Ken and Ed have been out there, we bought fire wood and left a van there. Our OPSEU vans have been parked out there for quite a while.
What would the significance of that be, what is a Sacred Fire?
(15:40) Krista: The Sacred Fire is burning in recognition of all the children that were lost at residential schools. It’s very important to keep that fire burning because that fire is actually helping the souls of those children return back to their families. So they’ve been doing all sorts of things at the fire. So it’s not like you just have a bonfire, there’s ceremonies, there’s dances, there’s almost like mini pow wows, I’m gonna call them and ceremonies that happen throughout the time. And it’s open to anybody. Absolutely anybody is allowed to come. You just have to be respectful of the rules when you go up there. There are always rules when it comes to ceremony and it’s a sacred space. It’s absolutely amazing to be able to go there and sit there. You can learn from the different aunties and grandmothers that are all sitting there. They sit there and tell stories, they talk about their childhood and how they grew up. The differences between life on the reserve previously to what it is like now. And they talk about how our cultures have changed over the years and what things need to be preserved.
(16:47) Smokey: And it occurs to me that people are talking about in our society religious freedoms, which I totally agree with. So in the Indigenous world that’s like, I don’t know if it’s a fair comparison or not but the beliefs in the sacred fire and all that, would be the same as me going into a church service with my beliefs system and the things that I believe in and other people believe in, so it’s very similar, right? And that respect is key. I believe as human beings we should all respect each other’s beliefs. Anybody listening, it is very interesting when you start doing some reading and very enlightening and kind of makes you wonder, what people were thinking all those years ago. Especially on the residential schools, just finding the graves and I know the feds put some money to that. You can actually find the graves and figure out who was in there, I would think that at least would give some sort of closure.
(17:56) Krista: Yeah, it is helping. As they identify the bodies that are in the unmarked graves, families are finally able to find that closure. I actually have a friend of mine, she had 3 or 4 aunts that never came back from the residential schools and they never knew what happened to them. Finding out that it’s possible that they are in one of these graveyards has actually helped that family. Because if they can retrieve that body it’s one more way to actually heal your heart. Because that not knowing is the part that actually makes you not be able to heal. That’s where that intergenerational trauma comes in because all these parents, they don’t know what happened to their children. Siblings got split apart, they had no idea what happened to them. There’s even some people that the eldest child was taken away before the youngest was even born. So they don’t even know that they have more siblings out there. And it’s hard not knowing and it’s hard not knowing what happened to those families.
(18:56) Smokey: I guess the comparison for other parts of society would be a loved one goes missing and you don’t know what happened to that loved one. I read stories where moms, dads and brothers and sisters are fighting to try and find what happened to at least achieve some closure. Are they alive or dead, where are they? What can we do? I think it’s important for all of us to think about that trauma and if we had a loved one just gone missing, a brother or sister, son or a daughter, how would that affect us? When you sit and think about that, most people go “my oh my”. I’ve talked to people that say that residential schools, they didn’t really know [about]. And now they’re starting to learn. I think as a nation, I agree with what you said earlier, it will bring us closer and maybe understand each other a little better. Hopefully a whole lot better.
Smokey: And move forward.
(20:00) Krista: It’s nice to know that, that people actually paid attention. It’s sad that something so shocking as huge numbers of graves being found is what wakes people up, but as far as myself a lot of others in the Indigenous communities, we don’t care what woke them up as long as they finally got woken up. And they now understand where we were coming from. For years I’ve always been told “well why can’t you guys just get over it?” I know Murray Sinclair always said “I’ll forget when you forget. When someone goes missing in your family.” It’s all about that, we can’t forget because you have to learn from what happened in the past so it doesn’t get repeated.
(20:43) Smokey: I know the efforts of hundreds and hundreds of activists have really moved this along, But Murray Sinclair, Senator Sinclair, is probably the person who really got Canada to wake up. When you listen to him speak, he’s so thoughtful and not judgemental. I’ve heard him speak a few times he’s actually amazing.
Krista: He is amazing and he puts it so well. In a way that people can understand it. I think that’s the more important thing because you’re not throwing it at people saying you did wrong, it’s the “Look, this is what happened”. We’re not putting blame on anybody we’re saying, “This is what happened and we need to fix it”. And that’s the way to go.
(21:31) Smokey: I know as the President of OPSEU I’m truly grateful for the work and you and the rest of the Circle do, every day, not just around special days, but every day. For anybody listening, I know that how hard Krista works and the folks on the Circle work. They really do a lot of good stuff. And it really is putting OPSEU out there, gaining trust and building relationships. In closing, you have the last words here. Say anything you like.
(22:05) Krista: Well, I just want everyone to educate themselves. That’s my number one thing I want everyone to do, is go out there and educate yourself. Learn about Indigenous people. Don’t be afraid to walk into a friendship center and say, “Hi, I want to learn”. Because the more people that learn, the better everything is going to be for everybody.
(22:24) Smokey: Alrighty, well thank you. So I guess I did have the last word (both laugh). Thanks Krista, I appreciate it and I hope folks, if you want to learn more, you can always find links to all of our committees on our website. So Krista thank you for coming in, especially with these trying times we’re living in, socially distanced. I appreciate it.
Krista: Thank you.