Melissa Purcell (far right), a teacher employed with First Nations, Métis and Inuit Education, Edmonton Public Schools, leads a group of indigenous dancers during the launch of Orange Shirt Day at Edmonton’s city hall on Friday, Sept. 30. They danced for healing for residential school survivors, their families and the community. (Photo: Cory Hare)
Educators and students all over Alberta celebrated the province’s first official Orange Shirt Day on Friday, Sept. 30.
The campaign, whose slogan is Every Child Matters, generated so much interest around the province that organizers struggled to meet all the requests for orange T-shirts.
“We are so thrilled to have so many schools across the province participating in Orange Shirt Day activities in their schools today,” said Leslie MacEachern, managing director of the Society for Safe and Caring Schools and Communities, which helped organize the event.
The campaign remembers the experiences of former students of residential schools and is a commitment to ongoing reconciliation in Canada. Originating in British Columbia, this is the third year the campaign has run in B.C. and other parts of Canada, and the first co-ordinated effort to celebrate the campaign in Alberta.
Residential school survivor Phyllis Webstad of Williams Lake, B.C., began the campaign in 2013 to raise awareness of residential school history. In 1973, when she was six, Webstad excitedly wore an orange shirt on her first day of residential school, only to have the shirt taken away. She was also told not to speak her language.
At the event launch at Edmonton’s city hall, Alberta residential school survivor Jerry Wood told a similar story, recounting how he was excited about his first day at residential school, showing up in brand new clothes and runners and with a bag containing two special toys. These were promptly taken away. His braided hair was shaved to the skin and kerosene applied to his head to combat his non-existent lice problem. He also wasn’t allowed to speak Cree, his first language.
While he often shares this story from his painful past, Wood also emphasized the importance of looking to the future.
“We can’t keep looking back. We have to look forward so it will never happen again,” he said.
Now 76, Wood regularly works with students in Edmonton’s public and Catholic schools. He said educating young people is the key to making a difference for future generations.
“It’s going to take a long time before the indigenous people will be healed,” he said. “It’s not something that’s going to happen overnight; it won’t be in my lifetime, but at least now people are aware of it.” ❚
Educators hear message of healing
Bryan Passifiume, Special to the ATA News
When it comes to reconciling the past with Canada’s indigenous peoples, it all starts in the classroom.
That was the message Friday as the Calgary Board of Education’s Career and Technology Centre (CTC) joined schools across Canada in commemorating Orange Shirt Day — an event featuring speakers and ceremonies meant to both educate and illuminate students and faculty alike.
“This was about speaking to both youth and teachers,” said speaker Blaire Russell, a First Nations educator at Calgary’s Glenbow Museum.
“It’s vital to not only let the truth be known about what has happened in the past, but to get a grasp of what’s going on today so we all can heal and move on in a positive way.”
A sharing circle discussion was part of the Orange Shirt Day event at the Career and Technology Centre at Lord Shaughnessy High School in Calgary. (Photo: Bryan C. Passifiume)
Topics discussed ranged from the ongoing impact of Canada’s residential schools to addressing the very real spectre of racism and discrimination still felt by indigenous people today.
“Our way of life and everything we are, it’s all still ingrained in us, in our DNA,” Russell said.
“The intergenerational trauma has impacted us in a negative way. The way for our youth to heal from that is not only to know what has happened, but also to know who they are and to be proud.”
It’s that sense of pride that many First Nations youth tap into when dealing with their personal struggles, but also when educating others.
That’s what inspired 16-year-old Lysandra Chaplin to pen a speech read in the House of Commons Friday by member of Parliament Romeo Sagnash to mark Orange Shirt Day.
“[The speech] shines a light on a lot of First Nations issues,” said the Grade 11 student from Calgary’s Henry Wise Wood High School.
“To have the House of Commons listen to my speech, I felt it would help them see what’s really happening outside of Parliament.
“It’s important for me to share that part of me, because as I walk the land, my ancestors walk with me.”
Chaplin is pleased to see school curricula incorporate more material about the struggles of Canada’s First Nations, but said there’s still a long way to go.
“I had a social studies teacher who once told me that residential schools were OK, to an extent, if it was on the reserve,” she said.
“I don’t think he understood what that meant to me, what it was like to hear those words from a teacher; someone who was supposed to educate and help me on my way to success.
“It’s hugely important for me for education to change, because a lot of the truth behind the history of Canada isn’t told in textbooks. It’s mostly left out.”
Understanding is an essential part of healing the divide, said high school success coach Ivy Mitchell, who facilitated the school’s Orange Shirt Day event.
“What we had more than anything is the ‘big T’ part of Truth and Reconciliation,” she said.
“We’re moving towards reconciliation, we’ve got a lot more to do, but I think it’s opening the dialogue.”
Helping Alberta’s students understand and contextualize the First Nations experience is important to shape how future generations move toward reconciliation, Mitchell said.
“It plants seeds of understanding, and I think the more often we plant seeds, the more ideas are going to grow,” she said.
“Maybe education is our buffalo, maybe it is what is going to sustain us and allow us to come together as a people.” ❚
Every child matters
Hythe Regional School celebrated Orange Shirt Day on Thursday, Sept. 29 (the school was closed Sept. 30). The day included an assembly attended by three residential school survivors.
Prior to Orange Shirt Day, students also created hand prints in various fall colours to share why every child matters. Teachers Tricia Klassen and Allicia Westad used the hand prints to create a tree in the school foyer that was on display for Orange Shirt Day.
Students arrived on that day to also find an orange piece of paper on every locker, each conveying a positive phrase. This was the result of an effort by the junior high leadership class to convey the message that every child matters and that every student has a role to play in living that message. ❚
Our Lady of Mount Pleasant School, Camrose
Connaught School, Medicine Hat (Photo: Supplied)
Eastbrook Elementary School, Brooks (Photo: Supplied)
One of several pieces of student art on display at the launch of Orange Shirt Day at Edmonton’s city hall on Friday, Sept. 30. (Photo: Cory Hare)
Blessed Sacrament School, Wainwright (Photo: Supplied)