Canada observed its first national holiday honoring victims and survivors of the country’s residential school system.
The statutory holiday came a day after a federal court upheld a 2016 ruling ordering the Canadian government to compensate Indigenous children who were placed into foster care. Thursday’s National Day for Truth and Reconciliation and the court decision highlight the history of discrimination and harm toward First Nations communities.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the holiday recognizes the “harms, injustices, and intergenerational trauma that Indigenous peoples have faced – and continue to face – because of the residential school system, systemic racism, and the discrimination that persists in our society.”
“We must all learn about the history and legacy of residential schools,” he said in a statement. “It’s only by facing these hard truths, and righting these wrongs, that we can move forward together toward a more positive, fair, and better future.”
Thousands of mostly indigenous children were separated from their families and forced to attend residential schools between the 19th century and the 1990s. At least 150,000 Indigenous children from across the country were impacted, Trudeau said on Thursday.
In 2019, Trudeau said he and his government accepted the harm inflicted on indigenous peoples in Canada amounted to genocide, saying at the time that the government would move forward to “end this ongoing tragedy.”
Estimates indicate that more than 4,000 children died while at residential schools over a period of several decades, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission said in a 2015 report detailing the legacy of the residential school system.
The report detailed decades of physical, sexual and emotional abuse suffered by children in government and church-run institutions.
Earlier this year, hundreds of Indigenous children’s remains were found at several sites, prompting calls from accountability from advocates and Indigenous people across the country.
Governor General of Canada Mary May Simon said Thursday that Canada’s “real history has been laid bare.”
“These are uncomfortable truths, and often hard to accept. But the truth also unites us as a nation, brings us together to dispel anger and despair, and embrace justice, harmony and trust instead,” said Simon, who is the first Indigenous person in her role.
Last week, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops apologized for its role in the residential school system and expressed “profound remorse.”
“We acknowledge the grave abuses that were committed by some members of our Catholic community; physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual, cultural, and sexual,” the organization said in a statement. “We also sorrowfully acknowledge the historical and ongoing trauma and the legacy of suffering and challenges faced by Indigenous Peoples that continue to this day.”
Indigenous advocates had been calling for a formal apology from the Catholic Church and the Pope.
The organization said those requests have been heard and a delegation of Indigenous survivors, elders and youth is scheduled to meet Pope Francis in Rome in December.
Court backs ruling ordering compensation
Tens of thousands of First Nations children who were removed from their homes and placed into welfare may soon receive compensation following a court ruling on Wednesday.
In 2007, the Caring Society and the Assembly of First Nations filed a human rights complaint alleging that Canada was discriminating against First Nations children and families who live on reserve by underfunding the delivery of child and family services. That practice resulted in many of the children entering foster care, they argued.
After years of litigation and hearings, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ordered the federal government in 2019 to pay children, parents, or grandparents 40,000 Canadian dollars (about $31,000) each, according to court records. They could receive $20,000 for pain and suffering and $20,000 for discriminatory practices.
Children who entered foster care before January 1, 2006, and remained in care until at least that date could be eligible for the compensation, court documents show.
While it’s unclear how many people may be compensated, the Assembly of First Nations has previously estimated that as many as 54,000 could benefit.
The national government challenged the decision but Canada’s Federal Court dismissed it and upheld the previous ruling on Wednesday.
“It is not in dispute that First Nations occupy a unique position within Canada’s constitutional legal structure. Further, no one can seriously doubt that First Nations people are amongst the most disadvantaged and marginalized members of Canadian society,” Justice Paul Favel wrote in his decision.
CNN has reached out to the Caring Society for comment. The Assembly of First Nations described the decision as “monumental” and one that affirms that Indigenous children and their families deserve justice.
“This is justice in action for First Nations children and families, however, nothing can replace the childhoods and connections to languages, lands and loved ones stolen by Canada’s discrimination. We have repeatedly made a reasonable and fair request that Canada stop fighting our kids in court not only for the sake of truth and reconciliation but also for the healing path forward,” said RoseAnne Archibald, national chief for the Assembly of First Nations, in a statement.
CNN’s Paula Newton and Max Foster contributed to this report.