PEI·First Person

We finally have a national day for truth and reconciliation. But it's not nearly enough

To finally have a day, a formal day acknowledged by the federal government, is a good first step. But until every single Canadian learns and acknowledges the truths, we will never have reconciliation, writes Patricia Bourque.

The Indian in me is still alive — trying to adjust, trying to process what is happening

'I remember all the stories every residential school survivor has told me. I remember all who never made it home. I make sure I take this day to remember,' writes Patricia Bourque, a Mi'kmaq First Nation member on P.E.I. (Submitted by Patricia Bourque)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

This First Person article was written by Patricia Bourque, a visual artist and Mi'kmaw First Nation member of Lennox Island First Nation, from Epekwitk also known as Prince Edward Island. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

Today, Sept. 30, has been Orange Shirt Day since 2013. It's now officially designated a federal statutory holiday: National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, in recognition of the harm the residential school system did to Indigenous children in Canada).

I remember all the stories every residential school survivor has told me. I remember those who never made it home. I make sure I take this day to remember them. 

To finally have a day — a formal day acknowledged by the federal government — is a good first step. But until every single Canadian learns and acknowledges the truths, we will never have reconciliation. 

Over the past two years, I've had waves of every emotion imaginable. I've dealt with the trauma of my own experience in the 60's Scoop, the trauma of my father's Indian Day School process, and the trauma of horrid truths finally being brought to light because 215 angels were found in one of many — many — mass graves. And we are still counting. 

I went from hearing those stories in private to suddenly all of Canada talking about this, horrified.

And now? Radio silence. The contrast is hard to process in itself. 

Profiting off our trauma

After the news of the mass graves broke, I found my Facebook feed inundated with ads for so-called orange shirts. 

Mi'kmaq Printing and Design in P.E.I. is an Indigenous owned and operated company that has been selling orange T-shirts by the thousands. Bourque is upset with non-Indigenous owned companies trying to profit from Orange Shirt Day. (Mi'kmaq Printing and Design)

I knew right away some weren't from Indigenous groups, people or businesses. 

People around the world, from small businesses to big box stores, were trying to profit off of orange shirt designs — profiting off the abuse and deaths of Indigenous children. 

It was more than my soul could take. 

I think the most triggering was a post advertising "sexy summer dresses" with Every Child Matters written across the front. I tracked down three companies' emails and wrote to tell them how despicable they were for profiting off a campaign they knew nothing about. 

I gave up after a couple of weeks to protect my mental health, and simply reported or hid the ads from my news feed. I learned there were many others doing the same during this time and we made a difference, as Facebook finally filtered those ads. 

Missing the message

I do see huge support for Truth and Reconciliation Day from across Canada and locally here on Prince Edward Island. 

I'm sure that today we will witness people dressed in a sea of orange. But I worry very much that people are missing the message. 

I want to affirm all my ancestors who are waiting to be brought home to their final resting place.— Patricia Bourque

The orange shirt in Orange Shirt Day refers to a new shirt Phyllis Webstad was given by her grandmother for her first day of school at St. Joseph's Mission residential school in B.C. in the 1970s.

"When I got to the Mission, they stripped me, and took away my clothes, including the orange shirt!" Webstad writes on the Orange Shirt Day website.

"I never wore it again. I didn't understand why they wouldn't give it back to me, it was mine! 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. All of us little children were crying and no one cared."

I hope every child across P.E.I. learns the story of Phyllis Webstad — and so many other Indigenous children across the country — on this day.

'The Indian in me is still alive'

I have learned so much in the last year about myself, and put names to my feelings and emotions. 

Patricia Bourque is a visual artist and Mi'kmaw First Nation member of Lennox Island First Nation, from Epekwitk also known as Prince Edward Island. (Submitted by Patricia Bourque)

I learned that I am not alone. That I matter. 

I learned that when babies are stolen from their mothers, it affects them down to their cells. Moving them around, not allowing them to form attachments.This is at a deeper level the damage that happens when you raise babies in a colonial system. 

Last year I finally was able to afford to buy my very first orange shirt.  I felt connected to Phyllis on that, it felt so special to finally have my very own and I wear it with great pride.

I've been wearing it often this year, because I want to affirm all my ancestors who are waiting to be brought home to their final resting place, waiting to be acknowledged. 

For more than 160 years, residential schools, or prison camps as I call them, existed in Canada. More than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were forced to attend church-run, government-funded residential schools. The last one closed in 1997. I would have been 26 years old — not so very long ago at all. 

These are traumas one does not just get over. To tell a survivor or a descendant of a survivor to do so is simply another form of abuse perpetrated by a system designed to kill the Indian in the child

I'm here to say, the Indian in me is still alive — trying to adjust, trying to process what is happening.

And in case you missed it? Those 215 children who died as part of the cultural genocide? That number is now well over 6,000. Just in case you hadn't heard.


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Patricia Bourque is a Mi’kmaw First Nation member of Lennox Island First Nation, from Epekwitk also known as Prince Edward Island. Located in the traditional territory of Mi’kma’ki. She's a visual artist, working with still images and cinematics.

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