Students show Mi'kmaq culture to classmates on Orange Shirt Day

Students at Mount Stewart Consolidated marked Orange Shirt Day with a special assembly that featured drumming, dancing, poetry and songs.

'It really makes my heart sing when I looked out into a sea of orange T-shirts'

A dozen dancers performed at the assembly in front of their classmates. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

Students at Mount Stewart Consolidated School marked Orange Shirt Day Monday with a special student-led assembly with drumming, songs and poetry.

Orange Shirt Day is observed on Sept. 30 across Canada and was started in 2013 by Phyllis (Jack) Webstad, a Stswecem'c Xgat'tem First Nation elder in Williams Lake, B.C. She is a residential school survivor whose new orange shirt was taken away from her when she arrived at residential school. 

The young people, you see the pride in their faces when they're dancing, it just touches me.— Chief Junior Gould

"I think it is so important for them to understand the effects of residential school that have impacted generation upon generation," said Julie Pellissier-Lush of the Mi'kmaq Confederacy of P.E.I.. She performed songs and poetry at the assembly and is also P.E.I.'s poet laureate.

"For them to have an understanding of what being Mi'kmaq means."

Pellissier-Lush was joined by the Red Moon Singers, a Mi'kmaq youth drum group from Scotchfort, P.E.I., as well as guest speakers.

'Every child matters'

A dozen Mount Stewart students from the Abegweit First Nation dressed in regalia danced in front of their classmates.

Drummers and dancers from Abegweit First Nation were part of the assembly at Mount Stewart Consolidated School. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

"It gives them a sense of pride where they can show off their culture, their traditions, their dance, their songs in front of all their peers," Pellissier-Lush said.

"It really makes my heart sing — when I stood there at the podium and I looked out into a sea of orange T-shirts, all being a part of this day where everybody has the opportunity to remember that every child matters."

Chief Junior Gould of the Abegweit First Nation, whose father was a residential school survivor, spoke at the assembly.

"I've been involved with the residential school process for quite a few years and it's grown into something that's not taboo anymore, something openly talked about," Gould said.

Serenity Jadis says she was proud to dance in front of her classmates at Mount Stewart as part of Orange Shirt Day. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

"When they play the Mi'kmaq Honour Song, it's our pride song, it's our national anthem. And when you hear that song I see my father dancing in the past, I see other residential survivors dancing." 

Gould says his granddaughter has told him about her classmates, who are hearing for the first time about what happened at residential schools.

"They can't believe the things that have happened only a few generations ago," Gould said. "I think historical education is a necessity to prevent it from happening in the future."

"All my children are aware of what happened to my father and it's a sad part of its history but it's shared and they have it to pass on to next generation."

Schools urged to spread the message

Pellissier-Lush would like to see Orange Shirt Day eventually celebrated at every P.E.I. school.

Chief Junior Gould of the Abegweit First Nation also spoke at the assembly. His father was a residential school survivor. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

"So that those children that are in schools where maybe there's only one or two Indigenous kids, where they have the same opportunity to be able to participate in their culture and traditions," Pellissier-Lush said.

"I hope that eventually it will go province-wide where every school has an opportunity to participate even if that means maybe doing it at a different day."

"I'm really hoping that it keeps growing and that more schools embrace the opportunity to share this history and knowledge," Pellissier-Lush said.

Actors perform along with poetry by P.E.I. poet laureate Julie Pellissier-Lush. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

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Nancy Russell has been a reporter with CBC since 1987, in Whitehorse, Winnipeg, Toronto and Charlottetown. When not on the job, she spends her time on the water or in the gym rowing, or walking her dog.