STRAIT AREA: This year, for the first time, Canada is acknowledging the dark history of residential schools with a federal holiday; a day to honour the lost children and the survivors of a shameful chapter of the country’s past.
Nova Scotia is one of three provinces, along with Manitoba and Prince Edward Island, to observe the day with the closure of provincial government offices, public schools and regulated childcare facilities while businesses have the option to close or remain open on Sept. 30.
The Indian Residential School system, in operation from 1930 until the last of 140 such facilities closed in the 1990s, was designed to strip Aboriginal children of their culture and their traditions. Children, some as young as three-years-old, were taken from their homes and families, by order of the government, and subjected to abuse and neglect at the hands of the people tasked with their care.
Since 2013, Aboriginal communities and supporters have acknowledged Sept. 30 as Orange Shirt Day. Making the day a national Day of reflection was one of the 94 calls to action identified by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015.
The day’s theme was inspired by the story of Phyllis Webstad, a residential school survivor from British Columbia. In recalling her first day at a residential school when she was six years old, Webstad spoke of wearing a new orange shirt she had proudly selected and the pain she felt when she was stripped of all her clothing, including her orange shirt. Her belongings were never returned to her.
Chief Annie Bernard-Daisley, of the We’koqma’q First Nation, encourages everyone to try and imagine the pain felt by the children as well as their families back home; to observe the day by listening with an open mind and open heart.
“Just sit and learn the truth. Learn the truth before they make any judgements or pass any judgements. It happened in the past, it did, but the ramifications and the impact it had on our society is still felt to this day and probably will be felt for a long time to come,” she said last week.
“There is an awareness happening all across this nation; an awareness that these children never made it home,” she said, reflecting on the discovery earlier this year of the remains of 215 children on the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia.
That number has continued to grow as the ground-penetrating radar technology used in Kamloops has been used at other residential school sites, revealing more bodies in unmarked graves.
“Imagine all those little lives who had the potential to move on in this world,” Bernard-Daisley said, wondering aloud about the many ways in which those children would have contributed to their communities.
“We don’t even know what was lost.”
This generation of non-Aboriginal students is learning about the issue in ways their parents likely did not, with schools including more content on the truth of our country’s history.
Students in Strait Regional Centre for Education (SRCE) schools will honour Truth and Reconciliation Day on Sept. 29, with students and staff wearing orange shirts, participating in classroom discussions, and often having the opportunity to hear directly from elders and residential school survivors.
Darrell LeBlanc, the SRCE Director of Programs and Student Services, notes Orange Shirt Day has been part of the school calendar in the region since 2013. He acknowledges that those lessons were not part of his own early education and encourages parents to be open and to continue the dialogue at home.
“But it’s not just about Orange Shirt Day, it’s about that conversation year-long, but with the 30th and how that is rolled out nationally we really take part in that day as well,” he said, adding the school community aims to be supportive of its aboriginal students and recognizes the inter-generational trauma caused by the harmful residential schools.
“We’re here to support our students and our communities to have those conversations,” LeBlanc said.
Jill Burton, the SRCE’s Coordinator of Mi’kmaw Education Services, says schools have different ways of teaching Mi’kmaq history, including residential schools, throughout the academic year in age-appropriate ways, with many resources available through the Mi’kmaq services branch of the department of education.
“It’s understanding the meaning of key words; reconciliation, residential schools, survivor, understanding why we wear orange, and teaching Mi’kmaq history, culture, and ways of knowing.”
While schools end the month with a solemn day to discuss and remember the legacy of residential schools, Friday Oct. 1 marks Treaty Day and the beginning of Mi’kmaq History Month.
Burton says schools will have discussions around truth and reconciliation, peace and friendship treaties, and cultural practices in October, “but the national day for Truth and Reconciliation is a time for honour and really commemorating and looking at and discussing the harm that was caused by residential schools.
“I’m hopeful with all the efforts that are going on in our schools within our region that we can make a difference and help to build that understanding with students and families and staff and our whole school community.”
For her part, Chief Bernard-Daisley says the support from community partners is all meaningful, whether it comes in the form of people wearing orange shirts, flags flying at half-mast in response to the discovery of unmarked graves, or Inverness Municipal Council reaching out to ask how they can help. She also points to people displaying red dresses in their windows to raise awareness of missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW), as well as organizations and businesses reaching out.
“We see a lot of communities stepping up to the plate like that, non-Native communities, and that means a lot,” she said, noting strong support from Port Hawkesbury Mayor Brenda Chisholm-Beaton.
“It’s these people, including us, who are responsible to set the story straight. It’s up to us now to really put measures in place to stop this because our lives are valuable. We are cherished members of this nation just as much as anybody else. Justice and awareness should go hand in hand with our people as well.
“It’s time to build stronger relationships, relationships built on truth.”
Blanket exercises, a releasing ceremony with sacred fire and other community events are taking place through the region to honour Truth and Reconciliation Day.