Orange Shirt Day acknowledges Canada's shameful past

By Adam Donnelly
September 30, 2016 - 4:50pm Updated: September 30, 2016 - 5:30pm

KAMLOOPS — The treatment of Canada’s indigenous peoples is a stain on the history of this country, which lasted over a century and a half. At the center of the systemic racism, were the Indian Residential Schools. Over 150,000 indigenous children were taken from their families, stripped of their language, culture, and identity, and often abused by the those running these institutions. September 30th is Orange Shirt Day. It began in 2013, as a response to the horrific treatment of indigenous children in the residential school program. The day is a chance for students to acknowledge the legacy of abuse indigenous people suffered, as well as a step towards healing those wounds.

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“I think for the healing to happen, deep down to the base of the problem, they need to understand,” June Shackley suggested.

In 1951, at just five years of age, June was taken from her family and placed in the St. George’s Anglican Residential School, in Lytton.

“My parents were both residential school survivors,” Shackley explained. “They were struggling with their own issues. As a five-year-old, I was looking forward to joining my brother, who went to the school before me.”

Instead of a happy reunion with her brother, June described the school as horrific.

“We were stripped of our identities,” June remembered, with tears in her eyes. “There was a lot lost. I didn’t know who I was… just a lot of identity [issues] which I still struggle with today.”

June’s story isn’t unique. Today there are over 80,000 survivors of the residential school program living in Canada, many of whom suffered physical and sexual abuse at the hands of those running the schools.

September 30th is Orange Shirt Day, a movement started by Phyllis Webstad - a survivor of the St. Joseph Mission School in Williams Lake - to commemorate the pain and suffering these schools have caused for indigenous people across Canada.

Webstad remembered wearing an orange shirt on her first day at St. Joseph’s. It, along with her identity, was stripped from her on that day. Now, thousands across Canada wear orange on September 30th, as a reminder of so many who had similar experiences to Webstad’s.

Charlene Cash is an aboriginal education worker at Arthur Hatton Elementary, which traditionally has one of the highest populations of indigenous students in the school district.

“I think it’s important so we never go back to that again, Cash told CFJC Today. “If all of the students here learn a little bit every year, then change will happen slowly.”

Orange Shirt Day is an opportunity for this generation, as well as future ones, to understand the horrific treatment of indigenous children in Canada. For a trio of students in Grade 6 at Arthur Hatton, learning about residential schools was an eye opening experience.

“It’s kind of interesting but sad to know everything the went through,” Madison Jameson said.

“I would have been extremely sad, and would have wanted to go back home, and maybe even try to escape,” offered Kaylee Moss.

“I feel like all kids have a right, and they shouldn;’t have to go through that in their lifetime,” said Rylee Lake

For many of the survivors, understanding and acknowledging the past is how we can move towards reconciling it.

“You know, asking the questions, and sincerely listening. Some people ask, but they don’t believe,” Shackley replied when asked about the path to healing these wounds. “It’s important for people to hear, and believe what we're saying.”

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