'A step toward understanding': Runners honour residential school survivors

The key focus this weekend was "just racing for them," said one participant.

Athletes from across Western Canada raced in orange shirts Saturday in Saskatoon

Four schools racing in orange singlets on Saturday. (Saskatchewan Aboriginal Track and Field)

Dylan Bauman planned to to run fast Saturday in his first major race with the University of Saskatchewan Huskies, but the event had a much deeper meaning for him.

The Huskies began wearing orange racing shirts last year to honour residential school survivors. This weekend, dozens of athletes from universities across Western Canada did the same. 

Bauman, who is Métis, said he would carry his ancestors and other survivors in his heart around the hilly eight kilometre course.

University of Saskatchewan Huskies cross country head coach Jason Reindl (left) and first year athlete Dylan Bauman display the uniforms the team will don for Saturday's race in Saskatoon. They say the shirts are a way to honour residential school survivors and the upcoming Orange Shirt Day. (Jason Warick/CBC)

"I'm looking forward to just racing for those survivors and what they've gone through. The key focus this weekend is just racing for them," Bauman said last week. 

Bauman said his mom, Mel, would be there cheering in an orange shirt.

"It's part of the history of Canada," Bauman said.

"What happened is important. We shouldn't try to cover it up. That's the only way to move forward is to try to accept what happened in the past and try and just not do it again."

The event took participants through Victoria Park. (Saskatchewan Aboriginal Track and Field)

Before the races in Saskatoon's Victoria Park, athletes and coaches were nvited to participate in a smudging ceremony. 

After the race, survivors spoke with athletes and spectators.

"Sport saved my life," said survivor Eugene Arcand.

The University of Saskatchewan Huskie cross-country running team wore orange uniforms last year to honour residential school survivors. Other Canadian universities will do the same in this year's race Saturday in Saskatoon. (Submitted by Huskies assistant coach Jamie Epp)

Arcand applauded the organizers for their work and said events like this give hope to him and other survivors.

"There's an awakening going on. This will send a powerful message to this country," Arcand said.

University of Saskatchewan Huskies rookie Dezaray Wapass races in the 2018 Sled Dog Open in Saskatoon's Victoria Park. Other schools will also be wearing orange uniforms this year to honour residential school survivors. (Submitted)

U of S coaches Jason Reindl and Jamie Epp have been working with Derek Rope, founder of Saskatchewan Aboriginal Track and Field. They're working to make the Huskies more inclusive for Indigenous athletes like Bauman.

Bauman and a core of other young stars serve as role models for others, but Reindl said it's not just about recruiting numbers.

He and Rope talk about responding to the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Five of the 94 calls talk about sports as a path to healing and justice.

Last year, when the U of S became the first university team in Canada to wear orange shirts, other teams noticed.

Residential school survivor Eugene Arcand applauded several other Canadian universities joining the University of Saskatchewan in wearing orange shirts Saturday to honour survivors in a cross country running race in Saskatoon. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC News)

"Literally at the start line when the University of Saskatchewan took their warm ups off, and they were all in orange shirts, it was a bit of a surprise. That elicited some discussion around 'Ok why are they doing that?' From a vantage point of raising awareness, I thought it was a pretty unique thing to do," said former Huskie athlete and current University of Alberta coach Sean Baynton.

That's exactly what Reindl and the others wanted to hear.

"It just feels great," Reindl said. "This is so important."

Orange Shirt Day will officially be commemorated across Canada on Monday, September 30. The day is named after residential school survivor Phyllis Jack Webstad, who was forced to change her orange shirt on the first day of class.