Sioux Lookout commemorates Orange Shirt Day
Reeti Meenakshi Rohilla - Staff Writer
Area residents gathered at the Travel Information Centre on Sept. 30 to honour Indian Residential School survivors and intergenerationals through this year’s Orange Shirt Day Walk. Event Coordinator Darlene Angeconeb, Acting Director of Equay-Wuk (Women’s Group), said, “We started in 2017. Sioux Lookout is trying to reconcile with First Nations on the whole issue of residential schools. We’re hoping that more Canadians know about Orange Shirt Day and residential schools, so they become more educated on the history of Canada. All the pain and sorrow that you see on the streets are a result of residential schools and that’s what they call the legacy.”
Minister of Energy, Mines, Northern Development and Indigenous Affairs, Greg Rickford, shared that Orange Shirt Day gets its inspiration from Phyllis (Jack) Webstad. In 1973, the little girl at the age of six, attended her first day of school in Williams Lake, B.C., proudly wearing a brand-new orange shirt gifted to her by her grandmother. “Upon arriving to school, Phyllis' new shirt was taken from her and she never saw it again. Phyllis has courageously spoken about the devastating impact, this and many other abuses she suffered, had on her dignity and self-worth, and how it made her feel as if she simply did not matter,” Rickford said.
Sioux Lookout Mayor Doug Lawrance said of the Orange Shirt Day Walk, “It’s great to see it happen every year, and great to see it happen this different year. “Acknowledgement is very important and raising awareness of our shared history and what we need to do to improve the situation for everybody.”
Rickford shared that the Orange Shirt Day acknowledges the long-lasting, multi-generational impact of the residential school system on Indigenous communities, our province and our country. Rickford added that for over 100 years, Indigenous children across Canada were removed from their families and forced to attend residential schools, where they were stripped of their language and culture.
Participants in Sioux Lookout’s Orange Shirt Day Walk took part in a commemorative walk from the Frog Rapids Bridge to the Travel Information Centre. Lawrance shared, “As we were walking along, people were honking their horns out of friendship for the orange shirt walkers, and that’s the kind of community I think that Sioux Lookout is and can be. So that would be my message, to keep that up folks and be a welcoming and inclusive community.”
“They do an amazing job bringing people together to offer awareness and support for survivors and their descendants of the residential schools. I’m ensuring everyone’s safe. We’re enforcing the masking policies and social distancing principles. It’s difficult to run an event like this, and there are quite a few people this year. But everyone’s maintaining their social bubbles from what we can see. And when they’re within two-meters, they’re putting their masks on,” said Andrea DeGagne, Community Mobilization/Safety Officer at the Sioux Lookout OPP Detachment.
Kiiwetinoong MPP Sol Mamakwa, wearing an orange shirt, said in the Legislative Assembly of Ontario on Sept. 30, “Indian Residential Schools were a creation of government colonial policies using the churches. They took away our way of life and our language, from generations of our children. They neglected us. They sexually abused us. They murdered us. Through these schools Canada attempted to commit genocide against Indigenous Peoples. This genocide exists in the complacency of governments today. Our people pay in full, Mr. Speaker for this inaction with their health and with their lives. Governments can and must do better.”
He added, “I’m thankful for the ongoing strength and resilience of our people.”
Angeconeb said that it is good to talk about our history and its prevailing consequences. “That’s why we have food at the end here, so that people can sit and talk to each other. If somebody wants to get rid of their pain and talk about the experience, this is the place to do it. We have a lot of people who work in the health system so we have the elders here and somebody who can take care of these people if they need to be brought for counseling or something like that. I think people really appreciate being able to see each other, even from a distance.”
Lac Seul First Nation Chief Derek Maud shared part of his experience coming from a family that was impacted by the residential school system. “Growing up, my parents never talked about it. I understood why later when I grew up. I educated myself and wanted to know what the residential school system was and I think that’s one of the things that are important and that needs to be brought into our education curriculum. Especially in Canada for sure, we need to talk about the history of Canada and we need to talk about our origins. Then I think that people will understand why some of our people are the way they are. It’s just because they lost the connection with their parents, their land, their language, then they are sort of put back into society where they almost had no place. Having events like this brings awareness and healing to the survivors,” Maud said.
“I had to learn about The Holocaust or the slaves or the African people that came across. But there’s nothing mentioned of the spiritual genocide that happened to Aboriginal people in Canada or in the States. Everybody has a story and it’s important for everybody to hear this story even though they don’t want to hear it. People need to be open minded about these things,” Maud added.
A volunteer at the event, Aileen Urquhart, who is a part of the municipal Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and is of Scottish origins, moved to Canada at a young age. She said, “The legacy of residential schools is horrendous. That’s a part of history from my background that I feel terrible about. I’ve heard a lot of stories about residential schools and I feel sick that people were subjected to that kind of experiences. So, whatever I can do to support people and their journey of healing. We all need to know our history, the history of this country and the history of the country where we’ve come from and our connection with it. We’re all in this. Everything affects all of us. I think it’s really important that non-Indigenous people educate themselves about the history,” said Urquhart.
Maud shared that it took his mother a while to share her experiences of the school. “Some of the stories that I’ve heard at conferences that I went to, they are just horrific. When I think about it even to this day, I can’t. I am trying to put myself in her shoes or their shoes, like how would I be able to cope with that? One of the things was that when the kids went back home to their parents, they had lost that connection.” He added that not only did those children lose their language, but they also lost the connection to their land. “It was almost like a different kid returning,” he said.
A participant at the event, Brent Wesley, Communications Coordinator at Kwayaciiwin Education Resource Centre, an organization that provides a wide range of support services for community schools, said that his grandparents, along with numerous aunts and uncles went to residential schools and his mother attending the day school. “There’s a lot of history there and a lot of intergenerational stuff that we have gone through as a family. So it’s important for me to personally participate in an event like this, commemorate the day and what it means. We can’t forget the history. It wasn’t very long ago that the last residential school closed in 1996. There was a residential school here in Sioux Lookout and there are so many people in town that have gone to that school. It’s a part of our community and its important that we recognize it,” he said.
Maud said that it is a long way to recovery for the residential school survivors and their families. However, "I think a lot of programs that are available now are helping families, especially when the Truth and Reconciliation Program came out. They did a lot of family events, strengthening those bonds and reconnecting. I think stuff like that is key to bridging that gap."
“It’s not the fault of the individuals for how they are. It’s just years and years of trauma that they experienced at a young age. But it’s really good to see now that a lot of the survivors have found that closure, have found that healing,” said Maud.
“Get involved with the community events that are positive to build the community stronger and especially with anti-bullying, anti-racism and to work towards reconciliation. Learn more from your neighbors or your friends about some of the issues that are happening with the First Nations,” said Angeconeb.
Schools in Sioux Lookout also commemorated Orange Shirt Day, increasing awareness about the legacy of the Indian Residential School system and honouring the healing journey of survivors and intergenerationals.
An Anishinaabemowin teacher at Sioux North High School, Christine Suprovich said, “Orange Shirt Day celebrations at Sioux North High School looked a little different this year due to the pandemic. Upon arrival to school, students were offered a piece of bannock, individually wrapped and sponsored by KOBE. Sioux North was grateful to have Victor Lyon, Romaine Lyon, Eric Anderson and the Friendship Centre join us for some teachings and drumming outside the high school, commemorating Orange Shirt Day.”
The Principal at Sacred Heart School, Brody Marsonet, said, “For grade 6-7, we had a donation of beading supplies from the local Friendship Centre, to participate in an Orange Shirt Day beaded art project. Desta Buswa, from the Kobe organization joined us by Google Meet to give background information on the history of Orange Shirt Day and share some personal teachings.”
Pelican Falls First Nations High School, which is also the site of a formal residential school, is currently doing remote learning due to the pandemic. The Principal of the school, Darrin Head said, “We also had teachers design an activity that they could do around Orange Shirt Day during their virtual learning.” A lot of the students that attend this school may have had their grandparents, great-grandparents attend this school when it was a residential school, he added.
A teacher at Sioux Mountain Public School, Suzie Hughdie, said that it’s very important that we recognize Orange Shirt Day at school.
“Education has gotten us into this mess, and education will get us out,” Justice Murray Sinclair repeatedly stated as Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, whose offices closed in 2015.
Hughdie shared that the Orange Shirt Day is always an emotional day at their school and in our community. The children of all classes were served orange smoothies for breakfast. “Our school was a sea of orange! Our staff and students wore their orange shirts to honor those whose lives were forever changed by residential schools,” she said.
The Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund and the Nuclear Waste Management Organization announced on Sept. 29, their plans to work together to create, “a meaningful pathway for Reconciliation.”
“This new five-year agreement will invest $150,000 into supporting both the Legacy Schools program and Legacy Spaces program. The partnership broadly advances Canadian learning about the history and impact of the Indian residential school system on Indigenous peoples. Both programs are an invitation for people to participate in Reconciliation,” a news release informed.
Grand Council Treaty #3 shared that with one of the highest concentrations of residential schools in the country, the effects of residential schools continue to be felt by survivors and their families across Treaty #3.
Treaty #3 Ogichidaa (Grand Chief) Francis Kavanaugh said in a Sept. 30 news release, “Today is a somber day in memory of those that did not come home from residential school. It also serves as a moment of reflection for all of us. Learning our languages, keeping our cultures strong, and holding our families close during these tough times are all ways to come to terms with the lasting damage caused by the residential school legacy.”
Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) also commemorated Orange Shirt Day on Sept. 30.
NAN shared, “There are six documented cases of First Nations children who died while attending the St. Joseph’s school and 16 children are still unaccounted for. At least 4,000 children died in more than 150 Residential Schools that operated across Canada for 150 years. Approximately 5,000 NAN members attended Residential Schools.”
“The orange shirts we wear every year are a symbol of solidarity and remembrance for Indian Residential School Survivors and those who never made it home. It is important that we take time to remember the truth and legacy of the Residential School system and acknowledge Survivors like Phyllis Webstad, who was the inspiration behind this movement,” commented NAN Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler in a news release.