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September 30, 2021 marked the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in Canada (TR day). The Bill to create this day received unanimous party support by Canada’s Parliament in 2020, and officially became a statutory holiday in 2021. Establishing national observance for TR day was one of 94 recommendations put forward in the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report, as a means to ‘ensure that public commemoration of the history and legacy of residential schools remains a vital component of the reconciliation process.’ To gauge mainstream response to this new initiative, and to provide baseline data to track engagement over time, we asked a representative online sample of 1,200 Canadians to tell us if and how they observed the day. 

“Our intention in writing this piece is to provide insight that can help us better address and understand apathy towards reconciliation, and offer solutions that can help us overcome indifference and disengagement on the part of our own communities.”

At the outset, it is important for us to state our goal in writing this piece on public engagement for an Indigenous-led initiative, as two non-Indigenous researchers. It is not our intention nor aim to provide comment on the success of efforts made by Indigenous communities and their allies that further reconciliation, including their work in having a day of Truth and Reconciliation recognized nationally. To us, September 30 was an obvious opportunity for community leaders to educate and engage the public about our history, effectively contextualize this history in the modern Canadian narrative, and amplify reconciliation efforts. Yet, reactions from leaders across the country were mixed, exemplified somewhat by the fact that some provinces, territories and institutions treated it as a statutory holiday and others did not. Ultimately, progress must be tracked to be achieved. So, we also offer a baseline metric of public engagement that can be used as a means to contextualize participation rates in similar events in the future. 

Around ¼ of the country observed the day

Awareness of the day may have been especially heightened this year as a result of other somewhat contemporary events that put a spotlight on these issues: In the late spring 2021, Indigenous-led efforts began uncovering multiple mass gravesites at former institutions, and it was then estimated that 1,300 unmarked graves of children were located. As a result of social media campaigns and news coverage on these stories, many Canadians were dialed into the realities of our colonial history at the time, and issues surrounding reconciliation were highly salient. 

Based on the results of our online survey, we estimate that 23% of adults in Canada participated in Canada’s first day for Truth and Reconciliation. Only 14% said that they had the day off, and only 8.6% lived in provinces or territories that declared the day a statutory holiday. Thus, public support for TR day outweighed institutional support in 2021. Among observers, approximately 40% said they wore orange, while ~29% engaged in some educational activity about Canada’s colonial history or Indigenous Peoples. We estimate that millions of Canadians took meaningful action on reconciliation in 2021. 

“23% of Canadians participated in TR day, whereas 50% of Canadians were aware of the day but did not observe it, and 27% were unaware.”

Millions of participants for any movement can be considered a success. Yet, we find a large gap between awareness and action. Reconciliation ultimately aims to increase the quality of inter group relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada by increasing understanding and mutual respect through education about our collective history. Reconciliation requires engagement from the majority.  

So, how can observance be increased among the other 77% ? 

The answer seems twofold. First, there is room to grow in awareness. To that end, we find that awareness campaigns would benefit from greater institutional support; respondents from provinces that did not shut down provincial institutions for TR day were twice as likely to be unaware as those from provinces that did. Other jurisdictions should consider galvanizing deference for the day by allotting statutory holiday status to September 30 in the future. 

A second more immediate question though may be how to grow observance among the 50% of Canadians who were aware of the day but did not participate in it. To better understand potential barriers and opportunities to increase TR day observance among this group, we dug deeper into individual factors correlated with observance.

Non-observance partially rooted in nationalism

When investigating individual factors underlying TR day participation, we found gender and generational differences. Women under the age of 50 were more likely to have participated (34%) than men under 50 (22%), women over 50 (25%), or men over 50 (9%). This demographic pattern somewhat maps onto demographic differences on nationalism1 – that is, older folks and men tend to exhibit more nationalistic tendencies than women or younger people. 

Detecting significant influence of this form of nationalism on reconciliation participation would signal a need for a different public engagement strategy. This is because higher scores on this form of nationalism suggest a clear and strong, albeit exclusionary, sense of national identity. There are many psychological benefits to strong national identities for group members, but one negative consequence of this condition is that it creates a tendency for these group members to reject any information that threatens their group’s positive self-regard. Specifically, group members with strong group identities tend to deny any historical wrongdoings on the part of their group or narratives of victimized groups that portray them as perpetrators of violence. Psychological research would predict that Canadians high in nationalism would be less likely to participate in TR day, as their psychological discomfort with this aspect of our history would lead them to reject the premise. 

This is consistent with what we found. In line with past findings about other sympathetic collective action, our data suggest that for every one point of increase in nationalism, the likelihood that an individual participated in TR day decreased by approximately 45%. These effects held even when we controlled for gender, age, region and income. Nationalism is a barrier to engagement for TR day in Canada.

Taken together, we can draw some conclusions about the success of our first TR day, and some recommendations about how to proceed in the future. 

  1. Over a quarter of all Canadians were unaware of the day – more needs to be done to promote this initiative and relay its importance to the public
  2. Nationalism, and identity factors undermine motivation to participate in reconciliation for some. 

Increasing participation in reconciliation will require collective and identity-rooted solutions.

Individual reactions to history occur within a broader representation of our narrative and identity, and therefore need to be understood within that context. In order to achieve majority participation in reconciliation efforts, institutional support and deference from leaders will be essential. These will be effective by promoting a number of identity-based interventions that can be employed to engage mainstream Canadians in this conversation. 

Two main actions are supported by our data and will provide guidance for immediately effective next steps.

Avoid historical generalizations: The first is for leaders to present factual information about their group’s past wrongdoings while focusing on specific events and avoiding talking about general histories. Talking about historical events in general terms implies a type of perpetrator group essentialism that is overly threatening to some, rendering this strategy generally counterproductive for engagement and harmonious intergroup relations: “So you’re telling me that we’ve done wrong, we’re bad people, so there’s something inside us that makes us bad? I don’t think so.” Speaking about historical wrongdoings in general terms creates room for this kind of defensive interpretation. We will never get some Canadians to accept the truth about our past if they also feel forced to accept that that past makes Canadians bad people. Speaking about specific events though can be just as powerful and even more likely to pique genuine interest for learning more about our history, Indigenous cultures and about reconciliation among the general public. 

Use affirmations:  those with a microphone must use group affirmations to keep everyone engaged for the difficult part of the conversation so they digest it, and stay tuned in for suggestions on what they can do next. Confronting negative history is important, but for highly identified group members it’s also very psychologically uncomfortable and a reason to disengage. Putting psychological buffers in place helps keep everyone tuned in so that the necessary information is actually absorbed. Affirmations – expressions of core positive values or aspects that help groups or individuals maintain a positive sense of identity – are helpful to this end. Including affirmations of shared, positive, and stable Canadian values in speeches, lectures, educational materials or ceremonies may help leaders to push past narrative denial, victim blaming, and justifications that can otherwise be prevalent among perpetrator groups when confronted with their historical transgressions. Once achieved, leaders are then in a position to propose meaningful next steps which could include but are not limited to: reading a book by an Indigenous author or watching a film by an Indigenous filmmaker, participating in a community event, donating or volunteering for an Indigenous organization, voting for Indigenous candidates to increase political representation, or simply showing their support for the movement by buying an orange t-shirt from an Indigenous-owned business like this one or this one

Interested readers can see a full publicly available review of strategies for overcoming perpetrator group denial here.

The reconciliation process is not supposed to be a comfortable, easy experience. From that perspective, one could – rightly – criticize the recommendations above. Why should communications strategies for reconciliation prioritize and protect the fragile feelings of a dominant majority? It shouldn’t. But, for non-Indigenous Canadians campaigning to engage other non-Indigenous Canadians in this conversation, these strategies may be required to mobilize a majority and bring political will against racism in our systems. 

Method

We conducted an online survey among an online sample of 1,187 Canadians from October 30, 2021 to November 8, 2021. Survey data was weighted by gender, age and region to be representative of the Canadian population. The margin of error for a probabilistic sample of the same size is ± 3.09%.


1 Nationalism was measured using four items that asked respondents to tell us how important they believe it is, on a scale of 1 (not at all important) to 4 (Extremely important), for an individual to exhibit certain traits to be considered a real Canadian, e.g. must follow Canadian traditions and customs.