Survivor recalls 'traumatizing' first day of residential school

As schools across the country prepare for Orange Shirt Day, teachers are left trying to figure out how to teach the painful legacy of residential schools in a meaningful way.

Winnipeg students participating in Orange Shirt Day to hear survivor's tale

Mary Courchene was five years old when she first attended residential schools. The retired educator now shares her experiences with classrooms to let people know about what happened. (Lenard Monkman)

As schools across the country prepare for Orange Shirt Day, teachers are left trying to figure out how to teach the painful legacy of residential schools in a meaningful way.

While some schools will do research, others will invite residential school survivors to share personal stories with students. For one survivor, sharing her experience at her first day of a residential school is the best way to teach young people what it was like.

"I was over-the-moon happy," said Mary Courchene about getting ready to attend school as a child for the first time.

Courchene grew up hearing legends in the winter and speaking Anishinaabemowin in Sagkeeng First Nation, Man.

"My life, pre-school, was the best," she said, but added she wanted to go to school to learn a new language.

"Most of all, I wanted to learn to read the comic books that my dad would bring home from work."

The Fort Alexander Indian Residential school was a five-minute walk from Courchene's family home. Her dad grew up never attending residential schools and was a "medicine man" in the community. Her mother had previously attended the residential school, but it was something her parents never talked about, she said.

When she was five, Courchene's mother braided her hair and dressed her in a nice set of clothes. That day, she walked to the school holding her mother's hand, along with her brother.

She remembers her brother not wanting to go, dropping to the floor, with his arms flailing. She was handed off to a nun, the first she had ever met.

When Courchene walked into the school, she turned around to look back for her mother, only to find that she was gone without saying goodbye.

I thought she was going to set me on fire.- Mary Courchene

The nun then took her into the school, undid her braids and pulled out a fine tooth comb that smelled like coal-oil. Courchene was the familiar with the scent, and knew that it was used to make fire.

"I thought she was going to set me on fire," said Courchene.

Courchene called the entire experience of her first day "traumatizing."

As the days went on and she settled into the school, the pain of being so close, yet so far away from her parents, was relieved momentarily when she found a window on the school's upper level.

"I could see from my vantage point of that window - I used to call it my window - I could see my house. And if I could see the smoke coming from the pipe, it used to ease that horrible, horrible pain."

She cried herself to sleep every night for the first two years she was there.

Importance of sharing

These days, Courchene is retired from an education career that saw her become the first principal of the first Indigenous high school in Winnipeg - Children of The Earth. She is now working at the Seven Oaks School Division as an elder and uses her story to let students know about residential schools.

She not only teaches students, but teachers as well.

"The public needs to know," said Courchene, adding for many survivors, telling their stories is a way to help heal.

Courchene has been telling her story through her duties as an elder, and will continue to do so on Orange Shirt Day, which is every Sept. 30. As Orange Shirt Day falls on a Saturday this year, most Manitoba schools are honouring the day with activities and education on Friday.

Orange shirt day was started in 2013, in honour of Phyllis Jack. The former residential school survivor had her orange shirt taken away on her first day of school.

Since 2013, Orange Shirt Day has picked up momentum across Canada with many teachers using the day as an opportunity to teach about residential schools in the classroom.

Associate Producer Lenard Monkman will host a panel discussion on Orange Shirt Day on Friday, Sept. 29. Learn more at CBC Indigenous' Facebook page and tune in there to watch.