As Canada marks the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on Thursday, some businesses are finding ways to embrace reconciliation even though they’re not covered by the new statutory holiday.
The day is intended to reflect on the painful legacy of the residential school system, honour survivors and the children who died while attending the schools and the families and communities affected by the residential school system.
“It’s absolutely crucial that private businesses prioritize anti-racism work, prioritize this type of reconciliation,” said Sheena Russell, founder of Made with Local, a granola bar company stocked by stores across Canada and based in Dartmouth, N.S.
Russell and her local bakery partner are closing on Thursday to give staff time to learn about Indigenous experiences and support cultural change.
Federal government employees and those in federally regulated industries such as energy, financial services and telecommunications are covered by the holiday, which fulfils one of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 calls to action.
B.C., the Northwest Territories, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, P.E.I., and Newfoundland and Labrador are giving provincial government employees the day off, but not requiring businesses to close. Other provinces are not acknowledging it as a statutory holiday.
Some municipal governments, including Ottawa, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver, are closing their offices.
Across the country, companies are taking action in different ways on Sept. 30 to honour Indigenous people, survivors of the residential school system, their families and those who never came home.
Ta7talíya Nahanee, CEO of the Vancouver-based Nahanee Creative, which she describes as a social change agency, said businesses have a key role to play in reconciliation, but “there’s been a longtime sentiment that it’s the government’s job to do reconciliation or it’s Indigenous peoples’ job.”
Nahanee, who is is Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), said businesses can be part of reconciliation by raising awareness, working with Indigenous suppliers, hiring Indigenous staff and more.
A time for reflection
At Made with Local in Dartmouth, Russell, who is conscious that her “small team of white settlers” is operating on the traditional territory of the Mi’kmaq, wanted to be sure the time off for her staff was about reflection and not just relaxation.
Russell gave each of her four staff members a pair of books by Indigenous authors.
She said the intention is not to have “people taking the day off to crush Netflix or whatever,” but rather to make it about education through “learning and listening.”
The company is also donating money to two local Indigenous charities and Russell said she is looking for ways to engage with Indigenous entrepreneurs as part of her business plan.
Downing tools to learn
For Chandos Construction in Calgary, president Tim Coldwell said a full-day shutdown simply was impossible to organize, with the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation just announced in June.
So the company, which does commercial buildings and has seven offices in five provinces, came up with another solution to mark the day.
Despite the logistical challenges of managing 100 active job sites in three time zones, most of Chandos’s 500 employees, plus a few hundred contractors and subcontractors, will put down their tools at the same time on Thursday for 90 minutes.
Starting at 2:30 p.m. ET, they’ll gather around big screen TVs for a video conference and awareness session about residential schools. It includes a video from residential school survivor and Indigenous artist Freddy Taylor.
“I think it’s particularly powerful,” said Coldwell. “We think as a good corporate citizen, it’s the right thing for us as an organization.”
Coldwell is Indigenous and a member of the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte, a community near Belleville, Ont.
He’d like to see more of a “leadership position” from the provinces and territories so that workers across the country are given the day to recognize truth and reconciliation.
At Deloitte Canada, plans on the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation are flexible but the company says its commitment to supporting Indigenous communities is firm.
The consulting and professional services giant is giving each of its 12,000 staff members three hours to attend live or virtual community events focused on reconciliation. That time can be used any time over a month.
The company is also offering its own programming for employees, created with the help of Indigenous advisers.
On top of that, Deloitte is paying for orange shirts for workers to wear on Thursday and giving them a list of certified Indigenous vendors to purchase shirts from.
“Each year, we’re progressively making a larger commitment to our overall journey of reconciliation,” said Alexandra Biron, the senior manager of Deloitte Indigenous.
Biron, who is based in Toronto and has Anishinaabe/Ojibway heritage, is a key part of that journey. She wrote a report on how the company engages with Indigenous communities in 2019, and the firm created a new position focused on reconciliation for her as a result.
In 2020, Deloitte launched its Reconciliation Action Plan, which it says was the first corporate reconciliation plan in the country.
Among the company’s commitments are to hire enough Indigenous workers to “mirror contemporary Canada,” said Biron. “That would reflect having a workforce of five per cent be made up of First Nations, Métis or Inuit.”
Another objective is economic empowerment for First Nations by ensuring five per cent of the company’s procurement budget is spent with Indigenous suppliers.
The company has mandatory Indigenous culture awareness training and educational programming on reconciliation year-round.
“It’s heavy work for sure,” said Biron, “but it’s also quite rewarding and impactful.”
The growing business of reconciliation
At Nahanee Creative in Vancouver, it’s hard to keep up with the business of reconciliation as companies come to the agency for help on raising awareness of Indigenous culture and changing corporate values.
“We have doubled our sales compared to last year. It was just myself and one assistant,” said Nahanee. “Now it’s me and a team of five.”
A graphic designer and communications expert for more than two decades, Nahanee has focused in the last five years on helping organizations make their workplaces and business practices more inclusive for Indigenous people.
Nahanee offers workskops and seminars and has also created educational tools like workbooks and even a board game called Sínulkhay & Ladders, which is based on Snakes and Ladders.
The Sínulkhay (pronounced say nulth kī) is a two-headed serpent described in Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) legend, and it represents that people have both good and bad qualities.
The game is grounded in Indigenous ways of knowing and takes players on an educational journey through real-life scenarios, teaching them to engage with First Nations cultures and put aside colonial assumptions. Missteps send them backwards with the Sínulkhay, while progress moves them ahead on a ladder.
Nahanee said the game reflects the up-and-down nature of making change, giving people a chance to recognize their mistakes and do better.
“The last thing I want is for anyone to stay in the shame of colonialism. We all need to stay in the game.”
Nahanee Creative saw a huge spike in interest from companies following coverage of the discovery of buried remains of Indigenous children and unmarked graves near residential school sites this summer, Nahanee said.
Demand is so high the company created pre-recorded online mini courses it’s launching on Thursday.
Nahanee is encouraged to see businesses and the country embrace the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
And her new videos mean she’ll be spending the day with her family, including her father, a residential school survivor.
“I’m excited about the day. We’ll be taking care of our hearts and our minds.”
Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.