Since moving from Venezuela at the age of two, Hiliany Ocando has spent a lot of time learning about reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous Peoples.

Though not born in Canada, Hiliany, who is the daughter of Suncor employee Maria Teresa Martin Avila and Suncor contractor Henry Ocando, believes understanding our country’s history with Indigenous Peoples and the importance of reconciliation as key to our identity as Canadians.

“For a long time, it seemed as a country we struggled to acknowledge what Indigenous people have been through for so long and how it's still affecting them today,” says Hiliany. “Residential schools are not a thing of the distant past. It’s important for all Canadians to understand reconciliation and what they can do to be a part of it.”

As part of her work to deepen her understanding of Indigenous culture, Hiliany was recently selected by the Multicultural Association of Wood Buffalo as the inaugural winner of the group’s Orange Shirt Day Contest. She attends Father Patrick Mercredi Community High School in Fort McMurray and was able to create the design in an art class.

Her design features a bear, a turtle, a child and seven dots in the bottom left. In her own words, Hiliany says the bear symbolizes strength, the turtle represents reconciliation work, the child for the Every Child Matters movement and the seven dots represent the seven sacred teachings. In traditional Indigenous culture, the seven sacred teachings represent what it means to live a ‘good life’. They differ from culture to culture, but generally include love, courage, honesty, humility, truth, respect and wisdom.

It’s a powerful design that represents the purpose of Orange Shirt Day, which is September 30 – recognized as the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in Canada. It was designated as a statutory holiday in 2021 by the Canadian government to raise awareness about the history and legacy of the residential school system in Canada.

Heather Hagerman, Rural and Indigenous Outreach Coordinator for the Multicultural Association of Wood Buffalo created the idea for an Orange Shirt Day Contest at the school. The contest kicked off with a presentation on the importance of the day and how students could participate in the journey of reconciliation.

“Educating our youth on the importance of reconciliation is key for a better future for all Canadians,” emphasizes Heather. “Our youth are going to be the ones who change the world and change the way we think about reconciliation. Building relationships with schools and understanding our country’s history early on for our youth is key to a better future for all Canadians.”

Hiliany Ocando, pictured wearing her shirt with the Multicultural Association of Wood Buffalo's Rural and Indigenous Outreach Coordinator Heather Hagerman.
Hiliany Ocando, pictured wearing her shirt with the Multicultural Association of Wood Buffalo's Rural and Indigenous Outreach Coordinator Heather Hagerman.

All Canadians have a part to play in reconciliation, which starts with recognizing the wrongdoings of the past, learning about Indigenous cultures and participate in events that advance reconciliation efforts. On September 30, there are activities throughout the country for people to learn about reflect on the legacy of residential schools and Canada’s history with Indigenous Peoples.

“I encourage everyone to begin learning about Canada’s history with Indigenous Peoples,” says Hiliany. “As someone who wasn’t born in Canada, I see a common attitude being it doesn’t affect them because their parents and grandparents had no role in it. It’s important to acknowledge that, even if it wasn’t my fault or my ancestors’ fault— I could help, I could spread awareness, I could help these people to grow, to heal and to reconcile those relationships.”