Orange Shirt Day held at Wallaceburg schools

Wallaceburg schools took part in Orange Shirt Day held this past week.

Students from St. Elizabeth Catholic School in Wallaceburg pet the spirit horses from T.J. Stables during Orange Shirt Day. (JAKE ROMPHF/Postmedia Network)

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Wallaceburg schools observed Orange Shirt Day this past week, remembering the thousands of victims and survivors of Canada’s residential schools.

Wallaceburg District secondary school held an Orange Shirt Day assembly with the entire school Monday, Sept. 30, inviting First Nations students to talk about the history of the residential schools, which they called “Canada’s genocide.”

The assembly began with a land recognition for the traditional territory of the Ojibway, Odawa and Potawatomi peoples. The speakers defined reconciliation as recognizing the mistakes that were made, apologizing and helping those who have been hurt, but ultimately, healing and moving forward together.

The students spoke about the children who didn’t get to go home after the final bell of the day. They talked about how children were punished in these schools for using their Indigenous language, how there often wasn’t enough food and how many died from living in the substandard schools that were host to many diseases.

Zhahwun Shognosh, an Ojibway teacher at Wallaceburg District, said it’s important for the entire school to learn about the history of residential schools.

“Here in Canada, we have to learn that it is our history. It’s not just First Nations peoples’ history; it’s everybody’s history,” she said.

Shognosh said about 80 per cent of the students in one of her classes said they had a relative who went to a residential school – 550 people from Walpole Island were sent to residential schools – so reconciliation requires looking at the generational effects of the schools.

“They need to realize that it’s still affecting our students here,” she said. “Those lack of parenting skills, (that) lack of affection gets passed down through generation and generation and creates dysfunction.”

Shognosh said reconciliation means creating a holistic view.

“How do we walk this path together? How do we move forward together?” she said.

The assembly was dedicated to Susie Jones, a Walpole Island community elder and residential school survivor who died earlier this year. She was taken to a residential school at the age of four and her brother died in the same school. Jones was dedicated to educating people on the history of residential schools, healing the wounds of those who went to residential schools and advancing truth and reconciliation.

Susan Carr, Jones’ daughter, said the entire school getting involved in Orange Shirt Day represented what her mother worked on for almost two decades.

“It’s just great seeing her honoured,” said Carr.

“It’s truth and reconciliation, so you have to know the truth before you can reconcile,” said Jones’ son, Jay Jones.

He said his mom spoke the truth at countless schools and it was nice to see her be honoured.

“It means that she’s made a difference,” Jay said.

St. Elizabeth Catholic school also participated in Orange Shirt Day. The elementary-aged students heard songs and stories about residential school experiences, met some Walpole Island spirit horses and made a banner for Every Child Matters.

Principal Stacy Shepley said introducing truth and reconciliation at an early age helps “develop empathy and understanding for what another group of people have gone through.” She said another important factor is working together as a community to be resilient and overcome adversity.

Shepley said they want to make sure indigenous children can see themselves represented in the school’s events.

“In the past people didn’t talk a lot about these things, but being able to share, talk about them with their community at school and just developing a greater understanding, I think it makes them feel more part of our community at the school.”

Founded in 2013, Orange Shirt Day has become a way to educate people and promote awareness about Canada’s residential school system and the impact it had – and still has – on First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples.

Residential schools – church-run, government-funded institutions that used a policy called “aggressive assimilation” to strip native children of their cultural identity  and teach them Euro-Canadian ideals of society, such as English, French and Christianity – are now largely remembered for the widespread physical, emotional and sexual assault of native children that took place. Children were taken from their parents at a very young age and shipped off to the schools, sometimes not being reunited with their families until they were much older.

During a ceremony in Gatineau, Que., on Sept. 30, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation revealed the names of 2,800 children, identified so far, who died in residential schools. The centre’s researchers say another 1,600 children died in the schools, which operated from the 1870s to when the last one closed in 1996, but work is still being done to identify and confirm their names.

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