British Columbia·Photos

'So we don't forget what happened in those schools': Remembering Indigenous children on Orange Shirt Day

While the last of Canada's 130 residential schools closed in 1996, B.C.'s former child advocate, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, says Orange Shirt Day is a critical reminder that the healing process is not over.

Critical reminder that healing process from residential schools isn't over, former child representative says

People march in remembrance of residential school victims and survivors on Commercial Drive in Vancouver, British Columbia on Monday, Sept. 30, 2019. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Six-thousand Indigenous children went into Canadian residential schools and never came back — and around 145,000 children who didn't die in those institutions were left with physical and emotional trauma that continues to affect First Nations families and communities.

It is to remember these children that Canadians are wearing orange shirts today.

Orange Shirt Day is held on Sept. 30 because it's the time of year when government agents would take First Nations children from their families.

Orange Shirt Day is held on Sept. 30, 2019 because it is the time of year when government agents would take First Nations children from their families. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The colour orange refers to the new shirt worn by six-year-old Phyllis Webstad on her first day at a residential school in Williams Lake, B.C., in 1976. The shirt, a gift from her grandmother, was taken from her by school officials took and never returned. 

Keisha Jones performs the Fancy Shawl dance at Orange Shirt Day in Victoria, B.C. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

While the last of Canada's 130 residential schools closed in 1996, B.C.'s former child advocate, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, says Orange Shirt Day is a critical reminder that the healing process is not over.

"It's a terrific opportunity for people to take note and stop and reflect on the residential school process," said Turpel-Lafond, who is now the director of UBC's Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre.

A performance by Victoria High and Cedar Hill Middle School students at Orange Shirt Day in Victoria, B.C. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

"It takes a lot of supports. It takes a lot of understanding," she said in an interview on CBC's The Early Edition on Monday, stressing how important it is that people use a trauma-informed approach when talking about the racism and abuse the residential school system inflicted. 

"I'd like to see conversations and curriculum and information in schools and elsewhere that really respect the experience and explore the experience of residential schools, and talk about what happened at those schools, so we don't forget what happened in those schools."

Phyllis Webstad pictured earlier this month. The orange shirts worn on Sept. 30 refer to a shirt given to Webstad by her grandmother that was taken from her on her first day at a B.C. residential school in 1976. (Lenard Monkman/CBC)

Brad Cunningham, a teacher at Reynolds Secondary School in Victoria, says Orange Shirt Day can be a good reminder of the emotional impact of this history.  

"We do a really good job around educating the people around the events," Cunningham said. "What I don't know we're doing a good enough job in is the idea that these legacies still live with us. These histories are never far behind us and we're surrounded by it all the time."

People march in remembrance of residential school victims and survivors on Commercial Drive in Vancouver, British Columbia on Monday, Sept. 30, 2019. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Cunningham says it helps when young people are willing to take the lead like student Shauntelle Dick-Charleson

Dick-Charleson, who is Hesquiaht-Songhees, performed a spoken word piece at her school that detailed her own intergenerational trauma and growing up not knowing who she really was. 

"I get to teach them stuff that they maybe weren't taught by teachers or either family members," said Dick-Charleson. "I get to tell them what my story is and how it affects my people."

Turpel-Lafond is presently working to locate the remains of every child whose lives and records were lost in residential schools, and emphasized how important is it to the healing process to find out what happened to each of those children.

People march in remembrance of residential school victims and survivors on Commercial Drive in Vancouver, British Columbia on Monday, Sept. 30, 2019. In all, about 150,000 First Nation, Inuit and Métis children were removed from their communities and forced to attend the schools. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

With files from The Early Edition, Bill Fee