How Orange Shirt Day is sparking healing in this Mohawk community

For the majority of her adult life, Tonia Williams didn’t have a relationship with her father Wendell. But Orange Shirt Day helped change that.

The day helped Tonia Williams reconcile with her father, a residential school survivor

Tonia Williams at St. Francis Xavier in Kahnawake, Que. She spoke at Sunday mass about her experiences with intergenerational trauma. (Jessica Deer/CBC)

For the majority of her adult life, Tonia Williams didn't have a relationship with her father Wendell.

He struggled with parenting as a result of his experiences attending a Catholic-run Indian residential school. During the 1950s, he was taken from his community of Kahnawake, Que., to a school over 800km away in Spanish, Ont. 

"A lot of abuses happened and he suffered greatly. As a result, it was very difficult for him to to be a parent or what any kind of person needs from a father," said Williams.

While Williams tried to include him in her life, her calls went unanswered. He once told her not to bother him anymore. She described it as the greatest pain she's ever experienced, and didn't know until years later what she felt was the impacts of intergenerational trauma.

"His feelings of anger, shame, and guilt got transferred down," said Williams.

"I was denied a father for that time, so I felt angry, I felt hatred and I felt all of the feelings that he had felt. People harbour these emotions, especially second generation or maybe even third, that you don't even know you have. Once you understand what it is, you're able to break the cycle."

Tonia and Wendell Williams. (Tonia Williams)

Breaking the cycle

For the Williams family, that happened with Orange Shirt Day. The day, observed on Sept. 30 across Canada, was started in 2013 by Phyllis Jack Webstad, a Stswecem'c Xgat'tem First Nation elder in Williams Lake, B.C. It's meant to spread awareness about the legacy of residential schools and to encourage other survivors to share their stories.

In Kahnawake, the morning includes a tobacco burning ceremony where survivors are invited to share their stories to a sea of schoolchildren and community members clad in orange. The event helped spark Wendell Williams' healing journey and mended the relationship with his daughter before he died on Dec. 25 of pancreatic cancer.

Students at Kahnawake's Orange Shirt Day event in 2016. (CBC)

"He went there and he listened to other speakers and he changed his heart and in his mind," said Williams.

"It's such a powerful message, and it's such a powerful opportunity for our community to start talking."

Promoting healing

Father Vincent Esprit is the priest at the Saint Francis Xavier Mission in Kahnawake. (Jessica Deer/CBC)

It's why she's involved with a new committee in Kahnawake formed through the St. Francis Xavier Mission — the community's Roman Catholic church. It has organized special masses during September and will hold a healing circle on the Sunday before Orange Shirt Day.

Among the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's calls to action were for churches to develop ongoing education strategies to ensure their congregations learn about the church's role in the legacy of residential schools, as well as to collaborate with survivors and communities on healing and reconciliation projects. 

"We don't always have to bow our head in shame," said Father Vincent Esprit. 

"We accept our role in residential schools, and we want to do something to work towards healing."

The TRC also called on the Pope to issue an apology to survivors, their families, and communities for the Roman Catholic Church's role in the schools. 

Fran Montour is one of the people from Kahnawake who are part of the St. Francis Xavier Mission's residential school healing ministry. (Jessica Deer/CBC)

For Fran Montour, a retired teacher, that call to action is out of their control, but organizing masses with guest speakers, talking circles and sparking discussion about how intergenerational trauma has affected the Mohawk community is something they can do to make real change.

"It's very important to look at that and promote healing to understand where it's coming from, why the lack of hugs, and why we don't talk about it," she said.


Ka’nhehsí:io Deer is Kanien’kehá:ka journalist from Kahnawake, Que. She is currently a reporter with CBC Indigenous covering communities across Quebec.