'This is our truth': Winnipeg students wear orange shirts to honour residential school survivors
Day inspired by student who was stripped of her orange shirt on 1st day at a residential school in 1973
Students across Winnipeg wore orange shirts to school Friday to remember the legacy of the Indian Residential School system, honour the survivors, and show support for reconciliation.
Orange Shirt Day is inspired by Phyllis Webstad who, 45 years ago, at the age of six, was stripped of her new orange shirt on her first day at a residential school.
"The colour orange has always reminded me of that and how my feelings didn't matter, how no one cared and how I felt like I was worth nothing," Webstad told CBC News in 2016.
Orange Shirt Day is now marked every Sept. 30, but because that day falls on a Sunday this year, it was observed at schools on Friday.
Dressed in orange shirts, students from Winnipeg's Ecole Luxton School walked to the healing forest at St. John's Park in the North End Friday morning to hear about the legacy left by the residential school system and learn about the importance of reconciliation and healing.
Since 2013, schools have been joining the movement inspired by the shirt that Webstad wore when she entered St. Joseph Mission near Williams Lake, B.C., back in 1973.
In the days before school started, her grandmother saved money to buy Webstad a new outfit. The excited girl picked out an orange shirt that had a string lace-up front.
On her first day of school, the shirt was stripped off of her and she was given a uniform. Webstad never saw it again.
Her experience at the residential school led her down a path that saw her become a mother at 13 and seek treatment for her feelings of worthlessness and insignificance at age 27.
She has continued that healing journey and in 2013, she shared her story "so that others may benefit and understand, and maybe other survivors will feel comfortable enough to share their stories."
Her story inspired the first Orange Shirt Day that same year.
'This is our truth, this is my reality'
It's an important day for Victoria Elaine McIntosh.
McIntosh, who now proudly uses her full name, was given a number when she went to Fort Alexander Residential School in Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba.
"We were there without no identity, no name, and my number, 63 — that was my name," she told CBC News on Friday, after leading dozens of nursing students wearing orange shirts on a march to the National Research Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba.
McIntosh carried with her the tiny grey coat she wore on her first day of residential school.
"It reminds me, when I hold this, that this is the little person that helped me through that dark place — that awful, horrible place — of feeling lonely and being hit and all that awful stuff," she said.
"Orange Shirt Day means to me to recognize these things happened, this is our truth, this is my reality."
Standing around a sacred fire, the nursing students renewed a pledge of reconciliation.
"As future nurses we chose to ally ourselves with Indigenous children youth and their families," explained Chris Hayduk, president of the U of M's Nursing Students' Association.
"We kind of want to right the wrongs and do our part to help."
Teaching about dark history
Teachers have help to educate the next generation, like the young students at Ecole Luxton School, about those wrongs with the book The Orange Shirt Story, written by Webstad herself.
That book has also inspired Winnipeg teacher Sean Oliver to help create curriculum about residential schools and the history of Indigenous Peoples in Canada that is now used across the province.
"Teaching this history is absolutely critical," said Oliver, a Grade 9 teacher at Glenlawn Collegiate.
"The legacy of residential schools, I do think, impacts all Canadians, and so I felt personally responsible as a public educator to bring this issue into the light as best as I can."
While the education delivered to Indigenous children in residential schools aided in assimilation and colonialism, education can now make things better, he said.
"Education can and should be the vehicle by which students are engaged in the topic and made aware of what happened and the effects on Indigenous peoples and communities," he said.
Depending on the age group being taught, there are various lesson plans available on the Manitoba Teachers' Society website, designed by Oliver and a group of fellow educators just over a year ago.
Although the lesson plans are new, the effort to raise awareness about reconciliation and residential schools has been happening in earnest for a number of years. Oliver said there are reasons for optimism.
Every year, he sees students coming in with more understanding of the issues, he said.
"So I think that there's progress being made, but I think there's a lot of work still to do."