By Angela Bellegarde, Our Kids Network Indigenous Lead
What do Orange Shirt Day and shiny new shoes have in common?
For many of us, pandemic or not, the beginning of a new school year is marked with the ritual of purchasing new clothes. Phyllis Webstad is the founder of Orange Shirt Day. Her grandmother bought her a new orange shirt to wear on her first day of Indian residential school. For my aunt, the excitement of wearing shiny new shoes to school was only eclipsed by finally being in school with her big brothers and sister. The thrill of starting school in new clothes didn’t last long. The children had their new clothes taken away as soon as they arrived for their very first day of school.
I often identify myself as a fourth generation Residential School Survivor.
A stretch in some people’s eyes, given I didn’t actually attend residential school. In a recent conversation with one of my aunts, I was reminded that my Mooshum, my great grandfather, was identified as the twelfth person to be enrolled at Lebret Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan. My grandparents and my father attended that same school, and I have had the privilege to learn first-hand about residential school from two generations before me. Our family has a long history with the Residential School System and I am still coming to terms with the long-term effects of this as I parent my own children. I guess this is why the impact of the residential school experience is called “intergenerational trauma”. It doesn’t skip a generation.
If you think about it we all tend to parent in the way we were parented. I grew up in a fairly rigid household. My father wasn’t parented by his parents for most of his life. He was raised in a system that denied him his identity and culture. I was raised with similar rigidity and values. Rules had to be followed or punishment ensued. Being on time meant being at least ten minutes early. My sister and I had many rules about how we could dress and how long our hair could be. We had to play sports – team sports preferred – and there was no getting out of it. While other kids were enjoying Easter break, my sister and I were at softball camp getting ready for the season, but only after we had attended all the religious ceremonies associated with Easter. As a parent, I now look back on my childhood and can understand why following rules was so important to my father.
But I didn’t always get it. I think about the way my father always walked with his toes up in the air. It looked odd. He told me it was because the floors were cold at residential school and you had to walk with as little of your foot on the ground as possible. I didn’t believe him. I didn’t believe his stories.
Stop and think about the children in your life for a minute.
Can you imagine the government taking them away from you, often with the threat of incarceration if you did not let them go to a school that might be days away? My auntie was so excited to be with her siblings. When pressed to discuss though, she explained that she was able to see her big sister in the halls once in a while, and sometimes her brothers on Sundays after mass, if there was a sporting event. She shared a dormitory with many other little girls away from their parents for the first time. She told me with a sad smile, “Reality set in that first night, but that was the way it was. You didn’t question it.”
So maybe you too can see why I didn’t get it. I We simply cannot imagine our children not being able to share in the rituals of bedtime stories and cuddles, or not having their siblings at their side to comfort them. The Residential School System was an implement of the Canadian government which was determined to methodically “take the Indian out of the child”. This seems unbelievable to us today. We cannot imagine not having the right to question government policy and the elected officials who represent us in Ottawa.
And in some ways the system worked. My father’s and my family do not speak our mother-tongue language, Cree. The same is true with spiritual practices, but we are revitalizing this aspect of our lives as best we can.
I am sharing with you the TRUTH in Truth and Reconciliation. Perhaps you are thinking the same thing I did when I listened to my father’s residential school stories. Everyone has a ”I had to walk to school and back in 40 degree below weather uphill both ways” story. I began to understand the scope of the atrocities of Canada’s Residential School System right around the time I took my first Indigenous Studies course in university. I was in my twenties before I really began to comprehend my own family’s long history with Canada’s education system. I apologized to my father. I knew then that his stories were true and I regret that I only came to this realization after learning about the traumatic impact of residential schools in a Euro-centric institution of higher learning.
I have come to realize that my family primarily shares fond memories of their time at Lebret Indian Residential School.
They are reluctant to speak about the difficult times. My aunts and uncles talk about how they learned to play musical instruments, the championships won in hockey and basketball, and that they were able to wear their own clothes on Sundays. It is astounding to me that all of my dad’s siblings went on to post-secondary education. Indeed, many of the graduates of Lebret Indian Residential School went on to varied and interesting careers such as NHL scouts and actors in some of Hollywood’s biggest films.
Upon reflection of my family’s experiences, I realize that in order to survive at residential school, and to cope with the awful memories, it helps to look on the bright side of things. The positive stories I hear mask their unfathomable painful experiences. Going too much beyond fond memories takes gentle and careful prodding. Laughter is used to nudge those difficult memories to the surface.
Playing team sports was required, but it also meant it might be the only time you could interact with a sibling. Being on a team meant you belonged and had support of team mates in the classroom and dormitories. If you learned that your little brother was being bullied, you took care of it on the ice or the field. Being part of the choir meant you might be able to leave the school premises to sing at a neighbouring church. If you were deemed intelligent enough, the priest could arrange for you to further your education. It is clear from these stories that Indigenous people did not have control over their own lives. Some would argue, we still don’t.
Without the truth, reconciliation will not be realized in a meaningful way.
All Canadians bear the burden of the truth of the harm and trauma caused by Canada’s Residential School System. If you don’t think it affects you because you are not Indigenous, I encourage you to continue learning about Truth and Reconciliation. There are excellent, free courses available such as the University of Alberta’s Indigenous Canada program.
We are all interconnected in some way. Reconciliation is important for all Canadians and without the truth, reconciliation will not be realized in a meaningful way.
On Sept 30, wear an orange shirt. This is a day to be a good ally, remember those who were taken by the Residential School System and commit to learning more about the truth. Help carry the burden and build a better future for Canada.
All my relations,
Learn more about Orange Shirt Day: https://www.orangeshirtday.org/phyllis-story.html
Mohawk College presents a virtual presentation with Phylis Webstad, Executive Director of Orange Shirt Day campaign. Sept. 29th, 12 to 1 p.m. https://events.eply.com/2020OrangeShirtDay