I found myself feeling somewhat nervous, perhaps a tad intimidated, when I set out to write this particular post. I felt myself being drawn into writing something about residential schools and the upcoming Orange Shirt Day (Sept 30th every year), but I also felt incredibly inadequate:
- My understanding about our national history on residential schools is bordering on the ignorant. I do not ever recall being taught in school about Canada’s shameful past experience with residential schools, and while I’ve listened to elders talk about their experiences, I still feel somewhat uninformed;
- I am not an indigenous person — none of my relatives are indigenous — and as such I do not pretend to begin to understand the pain and suffering felt by the thousands of persons who were sent to residential schools in Canada;
- I worry that my words and sentiments, because of my limited understanding, may inadvertently add to the hurt or pain already felt among many in our indigenous communities.
What I am NOT concerned about is whether this blog post might result in people talking about our nation’s past practices with Indigenous people. In fact, I hope that it might encourage some conversation about our experience with residential schools. Our country’s history with residential schools is shameful.
As a Canadian, I feel a personal sense of ownership for the atrocities we inflicted on aboriginal children and their families in the past. As a country which prides itself as a vocal supporter of basic human rights, Canada has failed miserably when it created residential schools.
Residential schools were formed after the passing of the Indian Act in 1876. The schools primary purpose was to remove indigenous children from their families and, thus, remove any vestiges of their culture and language — in essence, their purpose was to assimilate indigenous children into our dominant national culture. Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin has referred to the treatment of our indigenous citizens as “Cultural Genocide”.
“The most glaring blemish on the Canadian historic record relates to our treatment of the First Nations that lived here at the time of colonization.”
In addition to hearing several people speak about their residential school experiences, it was important that I spent some time reading about the subject. One article by the CBC’s John Paul Tasker (May 29, 2015) outlines some of the numbers from the Truth and Reconciliation Committee – a national exploration of the residential school experience which traveled across our country interviewing and recording over 7,000 indigenous persons about their experiences:
About 30%, or 150,000, indigenous children were placed into Canada’s residential school system;
- It is estimated that over 6,000 children died in residential schools mostly due to malnutrition and disease;
- Countless numbers of children suffered from physical abuse, emotional abuse and sexual abuse;
- The last 2 residential schools, St. Michael’s Indian Residential School and Gordon Indian Residential School, closed their doors … in 1996.
1996! We closed the last residential schools in 1996. That was only 21 years ago. Residential schools operated in Canada for 120 years. The amount of harm done to indigenous citizens, and especially to the children, over that time is a national tragedy.
As I mentioned earlier in this blog, I am not an expert in the history of residential schools, nor am I a victim of them. However, I am a Canadian. And I am an educator. And as such, I believe that I have a duty to not only remember the past but to ensure that we learn from it and work to provide educational opportunities to encourage the pathways to healing and recovery.
Orange Shirt Day is a legacy of the St. Joseph Mission Residential School (1891-1981). Former student Phyllis (Jack) Webstad shared the story of her very first day of residential school at age six when her brand new orange shirt, bought by her grandmother, was taken from her. Orange Shirt Day is a symbolic representation of Phyllis’ story and the intent to remove children from their cultural past.
Every year at the end of September, Orange Shirt Day provides us with an opening to continue the conversation about residential schools and the impact they had on Indigenous children and their families. By wearing orange on Sept 29th this year, our schools will be acknowledging this tragic national story, as well as hopefully providing an opportunity for all of us to continue the conversations about our indigenous communities and the work that still needs to be done to have them included as an essential part of our national identity.
I will be wearing an orange shirt on Friday Sept 29th and encourage others to do the same. It is one small way that we can continue to support Indigenous peoples as we work towards true healing and reconciliation.