National Day for Truth and Reconciliation: Recognizing the experiences of Indigenous victims and survivors of the residential school system

Dr. Sheri McKinstry
Dr. Sheri McKinstry

On the occasion of the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, the Faculty of Dentistry recognized and commemorated the legacy of residential schools in Canada with guest speaker, Dr. Sheri McKinstry (Assistant Professor at the College of Dentistry, University of Saskatchewan), Anishinaabekwe from Treaty 1 territory, and proud member of Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba.

Recognizing the experiences of Indigenous victims and survivors of the residential school system

Dr. McKinstry spoke emotionally and sincerely about her lived experience as a child of a residential school survivor. During her presentation, she reinforces how the traumas of residential schools have long lasting impacts that are yet to be resolved. “We talk about residential schools being in the past, but it’s not. We carry the legacy of the residential school system every day. And while this may be one day—or in some cases maybe one week—that everybody recognizes these atrocities that have happened, we live with it every day. We live with it 364 more days out of the year than everybody else.”

“Now we have honoured and recognized the survivors,” she continued, “but obviously we cannot hear from those who did not survive. We need to acknowledge and recognize what has happened.”

In a statement released September 29th, McGill University recognized the importance of acknowledging the legacy of residential schools: “A formal residential school system for Indigenous children operated in Canada from 1863 until 1996, with evidence of schools having existed from the seventeenth century. In total, more than 130 federally supported schools were established in nearly every province and territory.

The devastating legacy of the residential schools endures across generations of Indigenous families and belongs to a larger history of systemic racism, discrimination, and injustice that Indigenous peoples have endured and continue to face in Canada.”

This virtual talk was an important step as part of the Faculty’s mission to promote learning about Indigenous health, the history of residential schools, and the enduring intergenerational harms that they have incurred on Indigenous families and communities. The event was attended by over 80 community members and was one of many events commemorating this special occasion across McGill.

Health research to better understand intergenerational trauma

Citing research on the health inequalities of Indigenous peoples, Dr. McKinstry noted that in addition to the intermediate and proximal determinants of health, there are important distal determinants. “The distal determinants of health include the historic, political, social, and economic context—this includes the residential school system.”

Moreover, “distal determinants have the most profound influence on health because it serves as a foundation for the intermediate and proximal determinants.” One of the ways to visualize this in a manner that recognizes Indigenous cultures, Dr. McKinstry explained, is the tree. “If we take a tree, we have the roots, the trunk, and the branches—with respect to the tree, if the distal determinants of health are in the roots, it sets the foundation for the trunk and branches. If we’re looking in society, what we see are the proximal and at times intermediate—we don’t get to see the distal determinants of health. But the distal determinants of health are there, and they support what you see in society.”

Learning through listening

Listening is but one part of the Faculty’s strategic plan for advancing equity, diversity, and inclusion to better serve every individual that makes up our valued community. Yet it is nonetheless an important first step in creating a better sense of understanding within the Faculty, and hence creating a more welcoming and safe environment for marginalized groups, including Indigenous people.

In her message for the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, Dean Elham Emami noted, “To me, as Dean of the Faculty of Dentistry, Reconciliation means reaching out to Indigenous communities, acknowledging the discrimination that they have faced, learning from them, and seeking their collaboration to bring positive changes in many areas including education, outreach and community services.”

Dr. McKinstry reinforced the importance of such efforts in institutions, noting, “All colleges need to make it a safe place for Indigenous people to come. In order to make it a safe place for Indigenous people, we have to start by looking at ourselves and how we are functioning. Because whether or not we understand or see what’s happening, we need to unpack the baggage with have in the institution. (…) First and foremost the environment has to be safe for Indigenous people.”

Despite captivating the 80 attendees with her powerful presentation, Dr. McKinstry humbly closed her presentation by saying, “I’m not a public speaker, but I had a lot to share—and I still have a lot to share.”


The virtual event held on September 30th, 2021, was organized by the Faculty of Dentistry's Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee.



Dr. McKinstry also encouraged us to educate ourselves on the history of Indigenous peoples and the impacts of residential schools. She shared excellent resources which are listed below:

Orange Shirt Day

September 30th is also Orange Shirt Day.

"The annual Orange Shirt Day on September 30th opens the door to global conversation on all aspects of Residential Schools. It is an opportunity to create meaningful discussion about the effects of Residential Schools and the legacy they have left behind. A discussion all Canadians can tune into and create bridges with each other for reconciliation. A day for survivors to be reaffirmed that they matter, and so do those that have been affected. Every Child Matters, even if they are an adult, from now on."

(Orange Shirt Day website)

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