Saskatchewan participates in Orange Shirt Day to promote reconciliation

Friday is Orange Shirt Day for many organizations across the province that are marking the experience of former residential school students.

2nd officially proclaimed Orange Shirt Day in the province

Kenya Fessler is in Grade 2 at Davin School in Regina and participated in Orange Shirt Day. (Nichole Huck/CBC)

Friday is Orange Shirt Day for many organizations across the province that are marking the experience of former residential school students.

Orange Shirt Day was inspired by Phyllis Jack Webstad, a Stswecem'c Xgat'tem First Nation elder in Williams Lake, B.C. On her first day at St. Joseph Mission residential school, her orange shirt was taken away.

Orange Shirt Day is Sept. 30 but because it falls on a Saturday this year, many organizations, including Regina Public Schools and Saskatoon Public Schools, are honouring the day with activities and education on Friday.

Last year was the first year Saskatchewan school boards officially recognized the event. 

There are many variations of the orange shirt. (Shana Dion)

"It is important to build understanding about this history of our province and country," Shawn Davidson, president of the Saskatchewan School Boards Association, said in a news release.

Regina and Saskatoon public schools said they will participate "in a commitment to ensure that every child matters." Staff and students will wear the shirts throughout the day.

Regina Catholic Schools chose to participate on Monday. Each school has planned unique events, including a buffalo blessing and reveal, mini feasts and special guests.

Reconciliation in the classroom

"While the history of residential schools is embedded throughout our elementary and high school curricula, Orange Shirt Day provides an important opportunity for students and school communities to come together in the spirit of reconciliation," Education Minister Bronwyn Eyre said in a statement.

Students in Krista Schreiter's Native studies class at Centennial Collegiate in Saskatoon learn about issues that affect Indigenous people in Saskatchewan during every class. Twenty-eight students are enrolled in the elective class.

"If you can't understand what Indigenous people went through, there's no way you help to heal the past," said Katelyn Young, a Grade 12 student.

"Educating yourself is the first step to having a better future."

Young's classmate, C.J. Alexson, is from Sweetgrass First Nation and Kahkewistahaw First Nation. He knew about residential schools and their effect on Indigenous people, but enrolled in the course to discover more.

Seeing his non-Indigenous classmates learn about issues that still affect Alexson and his family is "heartwarming in a way," he says.

Katelyn Young and C.J. Alexson are Grade 12 students enrolled in Native Studies 30 at Centennial Collegiate in Saskatoon. (Bridget Yard/CBC)

The 2016-2017 school year is Krista Schreiter's first teaching the Native Studies course, and she prepared by taking courses and speaking to local elders.

She teaches high-school students about reconciliation from an interpersonal perspective.

"When a friendship breaks down, how do you get back together as friends? That's a difficult process," said Schreiter.

"You've said and done things that have hurt the other person. How do you move forward?"

Schreiter tells her students to use their new-found knowledge in their communities.

"You are living reconciliation," she says to them.

While the classroom is a place to start, C.J. Alexson believes politicians — especially the country's future prime ministers — can take cues from the curriculum.

"Honestly, he or she, the prime minister, attending more ceremonies and showing the feelings of how elders felt, spreading their teachings and what they went through," would be important, he said.

"Showing they care and doing something about it — like reconciliation."

Centennial Collegiate teacher Krista Schreiter encourages students in her Native studies class to use their knowledge of Indigenous history and reconciliation in their own communities. (Bridget Yard/CBC)

The next few days will be marked with events across the province in commemoration.

Battleford Industrial School was the first residential school in Canada to be sponsored and largely set up by the federal government. Today, residents of the Battlefords will join residential school survivors and their families for a community walk followed by prayer and several other activities throughout North Battleford.

The YWCA in Regina will take part in an Orange Shirt Day event taking place in Victoria Park.from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. CST. The event includes guest speakers, a short walk and a round dance.

With files from Bridget Yard