Leo Varadkar is famously enamoured of the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, on whose style and media image he seems to model his own. It is easy to see why: Trudeau is one of the slickest politicians in the democratic world.
His projection of young, cool relatability may not be to everyone’s taste, but it works. Leo would love to emulate that ability to combine the sheen of hipness with a ruthless hold on power.
Consider, then, what the two men were up to on Wednesday and Thursday last week. Both, as it happens, were involved with the same idea: the symbolism and purpose of a new national holiday. Both, strangely enough, were also alluding to the fate of the indigenous peoples of North America.
Varadkar’s party was running what it called the Commemorating the Pandemic Survey on Twitter and other social media. On Wednesday, it tweeted the question: “Are you in favour of a Thanksgiving bank holiday on Monday, 29th November?” over a picture of a roast turkey.
The emetic crassness of this suggestion is plain enough in itself. It managed the considerable feat of being equally insensitive to the suffering of Irish people bereaved by Covid-19 and to the genocide of American Indians.
But its timing is truly remarkable. For meanwhile, in Canada, Leo’s hero was actually inaugurating a new national holiday.
Here is what Justin Trudeau said last Thursday: “Today, I invite everyone across the country to recognise and observe the first National Day of Reconciliation. It is a day to reflect on the painful and lasting impacts of residential schools in Canada, and to honour survivors, their families, and their communities. It is also a day to remember the many children who never returned home, and an opportunity for us all to learn more, and to affirm the need for reconciliation and commit ourselves to the work ahead.”
Canada's National Day of Reconciliation is known colloquially as Orange Shirt Day. It was inaugurated unofficially by Phyllis Webstad, who was sent from a reservation of the Northern Secwepemc nation to a residential school in British Columbia when she was six.
She recalled that “somehow my granny managed to buy me a new outfit to go to the Mission school. I remember going to Robinson’s store and picking out a shiny orange shirt. It had string laced up in front, and was so bright and exciting – just like I felt to be going to school!
“When I got to the Mission, they stripped me, and took away my clothes, including the orange shirt! I never wore it again. I didn’t understand why they wouldn’t give it back to me, it was mine! The colour orange has always reminded me of that and how my feelings didn’t matter, how no one cared and how I felt like I was worth nothing.”
For nearly a decade now, Canadians have been wearing, every September 30th, orange T-shirts with a simple slogan on them: Every Child Matters. It is this act of remembrance that Trudeau has now formalised as a national holiday. Its purpose, as he put it, is to “recognise the harms, injustices, and intergenerational trauma” inflicted on children and families by a brutal system of forced separation and incarceration.
Last Wednesday night and Thursday morning, official buildings across Canada, including the federal parliament, were illuminated with orange light to recall Phyllis’s stolen shirt and everything it symbolises.
The parallels with Ireland are obvious. Our vast system of coercive confinement was based on social class and gender rather than ethnicity. But it had the same effects: families shattered, children stripped of all power and protection and subjected, therefore, to every form of depravity.
Even the ultimate relic of unmarked graves is shared by Ireland and Canada. The discovery of hundreds of burials at the sites of former residential schools in British Columbia and Saskatchewan resonates all too clearly with the discarded babies of Tuam or Bessborough.
But the difference in the political approach to commemoration and recognition is vast and, for Ireland, shameful.
Twelve years ago, the Ryan report into the horrific industrial school system recommended the creation of a permanent memorial to the victims. Three years ago, the Department of Education said: “Active consideration is currently being given to how best to mark this phase of Ireland’s history, particularly in light of the upcoming tenth anniversary of the Ryan report.” We will presumably get the same statement for the 20th anniversary in 2029.
Canada is facing up to its history of institutionalised violence against children. It has set aside at least one day a year to remember, reflect and learn, not just about the awful past, but about what needs to be done for the future.
Why can’t Ireland do the same? What is it about our political culture that makes it possible for a governing party to approach the whole idea of commemoration with tactless flippancy?
Four years ago, Varadkar as taoiseach tried to impress Trudeau by showing him that he was wearing, in his honour, garish socks imprinted with Mounties and maple leaves. He would do more honour to himself and his country if he asked Trudeau for a loan of his orange shirt.