Truth and Reconciliation beyond orange squares on social feeds

—Brands should play an important role as vehicles for action, beyond performative “we are listening and learning” statements, say Public’s Phillip Haid and Caleigh Farrell—

Sept. 30 marked the third observance of the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, and the 10th anniversary of Orange Shirt Day.

The day honours the 150,000 Indigenous children forced to attend residential school in Canada, the survivors, and the estimated 6,000+ that never made it home—although Indigenous communities believe this number is much higher. And it recognizes the lasting and ongoing impact of residential schools on Indigenous communities across the country.

But it should also serve as an inflection point. A prompt to examine where the Canadian government and Canadian businesses stand on addressing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action.

Brands and businesses can and should play an important role acting as the vehicle for action. Specifically, Call to Action 92, which calls upon the Canadian business community to adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as a reconciliation framework, and apply it to their policies and operational activities.

But, aside from the moral reasons, a reconciliation strategy has business benefits that include: better customer, colleague and community relations; improved reputational risk management; and the potential to bolster bottom line growth by unlocking opportunities within the Indigenous economy, where growth is currently outpacing the national average.

To better understand where businesses stand today, we asked Indigenous leaders working day in and day out on the issue for their perspective.

“We have seen leaps and bounds in the corporate sector over the last three years, but there is still a long way to go,” said Sarah Midanik, president and CEO of the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund. “There’s an emerging understanding that businesses need to go beyond symbolic gestures and take real action.”

She points to Hudson’s Bay’s creation of Oshki Wupoowane, The Blanket Fund, last year. It is giving 100% of net proceeds from sales of the historically complex HBC Point Blankets back to Indigenous community members and projects working toward reconciliation and improving the lives of Indigenous peoples. Establishing The Blanket Fund meant acknowledging HBC’s complex truth, and figuring out a meaningful way to help move reconciliation forward.

“True reconciliation involves a long-term commitment to building an understanding of Indigenous cultures and histories, identifying and working to remove current barriers to economic success faced by Indigenous Peoples, creating economic opportunities for Indigenous Peoples, and actively supporting Indigenous-led initiatives that contribute to healing our communities,” said Nan Wehbe, director of philanthropy for the Native Women’s Association of Canada.

Given that overall government progress has been slow, with only 13 of the 94 Calls to Action completed, we wondered what sort of response we would see from businesses and brands on the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. Would we see more performative catch-all statements like “we are listening and learning”? Or would we see something more substantive and even inspired?

Orange squares appeared across many brand channels, acknowledging the day and highlighting the steps businesses were taking to advance reconciliation. But some organizations have gone further, using the moment to publicize new commitments or fundraising efforts benefiting Indigenous communities across the country. Among the efforts that stood out:

  1. The University of Toronto will waive tuition fees for students from nine First Nations, part of a wider effort to make the institution more inclusive and accessible to Indigenous students. The new policy applies to members of First Nations whose territories the university either occupies or is adjacent to.
  2. CBC has been at the forefront of Indigenous reporting, and has concentrated efforts to raise Indigenous voices. Surrounding the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, it centred Indigenous programming for nearly a week, providing Canadians with content that expanded views of the past, present, and future of Canada’s Indigenous peoples.
  3. Tim Hortons held its third annual Orange Sprinkle Donut fundraising campaign. For two days, 100% of the proceeds from the donut benefited the Orange Shirt Society, the Indian Residential School Survivors Society, and the New Pathways Foundation in Quebec. Originally developed by a group of Indigenous Tim Hortons restaurant owners, the initiative has raised more than $2.6 million.
  4. Sun Life Financial Canada announced a $1 million commitment to supporting physical health programming for Indigenous youth in Manitoba and the Yukon. This is an expansion of its partnership with Spirit North, a national charitable organization that utilizes land-based activities to enhance the health and well-being of Indigenous youth, empowering them to excel in sports, school, and life.
  5. For the third year, the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund partnered with major media outlets and more than 500 radio stations for “A day to listen,” which amplifies Indigenous voices and calls on people throughout Canada to move reconciliation forward in meaningful ways. The all-day program took over radio airwaves and featured Indigenous leaders, role models, and artists speaking about Indigenous identity, and sharing their knowledge, expertise, and personal stories.

Yes, many businesses are still in the early stages of reconciliation. We all learn at our own pace, and we don’t denounce any work being done. However, it is essential that businesses accelerate commitments to Indigenous peoples.

Fear remains a large barrier for businesses struggling to make meaningful commitments to truth and reconciliation, said Midani. “[They] are afraid of doing the wrong thing, or they don’t know how to start this work internally,” she said. “This fear often results in inaction.”

Wehbe seconds this: “There can be hesitation on the side of businesses to reach out to Indigenous leaders or organizations and ask, ‘How can we do better?’, perhaps for fear of being judged or frowned upon. But that shouldn’t be the case. In fact, that’s how the best partnerships begin—with engagement and a conversation.”

“In collectively working towards reconciliation, especially when we are considering concrete and meaningful actions that can advance us along this path, it is helpful to remember the words of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission chair, Senator Murray Sinclair,” said Wehbe. “‘It took seven generations to create the harm through the residential schools. It will take a few generations to turn it around.'”

Phillip Haid is Public’s CEO and co-founder, while Caleigh Farrell, is the agency’s head of research.