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Orange Shirt Day recognizes residential school legacy

By Haley Rose [1]

BELLEVILLE – Martina Osawamick vividly recalls the day she arrived at residential school.

“I was given a number when I got there, and I still remember it,” the Sudbury resident told QNet News this week. “Everything was very new to me. We had to say prayers every night and say the rosary. And if you were ever caught speaking the (Ojibwe) language you were strapped on the hand and told never to speak that language again.”

Experiences like Osawamick’s are the reason Orange Shirt Day [2] is held every year across Canada on Sept. 30. It’s a day to remember those who were taken from their homes and forced to attend residential schools, and an opportunity to set the stage for anti-racism and anti-bullying policies for the school year.

Orange Shirt Day is an outcome of the St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School commemoration project and reunion. The first event was held in 2013 in Williams Lake, B.C., where St. Joseph’s was located, and has since extended across the country.

The event got its name from something that happened to Phyllis Webstand, a student at St. Joseph’s in the early 1970s. Webstand was six years old when she started St. Joseph’s. Before she arrived there, her grandmother bought her a brand new bright orange shirt. She wore it on the first day, but it was taken away from her by the people who ran the school. She never saw it again.

“The colour orange has always reminded me of that and how my feelings didn’t matter, how no one cared and how I felt like I was worth nothing,” the website orangeshirtday.org [2] quotes Webstand saying.

Where Are The Children Now? [3] is another program, like Orange Shirt Day, set up to educate people and raise awareness about what happened at the residential schools.

The schools were church-run and government-funded. The idea was to prepare aboriginal children to assimilate into the dominant culture. They were not allowed to wear their clothing, speak their own languages or bring any personal belongings with them. All the students’ heads were shaved and everyone was given the same clothes to wear when they arrived.

Orange Shirt Day “is a celebration for the First Nations, the ones that went to residential schools. Especially to honour all of the survivors and all that we went through. It’s important to remember that every child matters and that no child should go through what we had to go through,” said Shirley Williams [4] of Peterborough, another residential-school survivor.

Osawamick and Williams both attended a residential school in Spanish, Ont. [5] Williams went at the age of 10 for eight years. Osawamick went at the age of five and spent six years there.

When she came home during summers and for Christmas it was very hard for her, she said: “I lost my language and every time I would come home I was called ‘little white girl’ by my own siblings because I only spoke English.”

The experience caused her to block out the early years of what happened.

“When I was a teenager, 17 years old, my mother said something about residential schools. And I said, ‘I never went there.’ I must have blocked everything out of my mind because I didn’t even remember going,” Osawamick said.

As the years went on, and when she revisited the school, she remembered more, she said.

Williams’s father did not allow her to go to school until she was 10. He wanted his children to learn to speak their language, so he kept her home to teach her himself, she said. She did not learn to speak English until she went to residential school. Since she was taught her language at such a young age and didn’t go to school until later, she never really lost it she said.

“It was never taken away from me. They tried to take it away, but I used to practise learning and speaking the language before bed each night. I would pretend to be talking to my parents and have conversations. Every time I came home during the summer I would speak the language as much as I could.”

Osawamick said that despite the harsh conditions at the school, she does have some positive memories.

“When I went back this summer, in June, I was looking at the rocks on the property. I think the times when I was … happiest was when I was in nature playing. When I went back and was travelling up on the rocks, seeing the water, it was nurturing to my spirit.”

You can show your support on Friday by wearing orange and finding out what is being done in your area.