Schools from the South Cariboo area gathered at ballfields by the South Cariboo Recreation Centre to celebrate Orange Shirt Day in honour of the thousands of First Nations children who were forced into residential schools by churches and police forces in order to assimilate them.
Orange Shirt Day was created to educate and inspire future generations on the government-sponsored cultural genocidal program enacted in 1876 with the Indian Act until the last residential school closed as late as 1996, in hopes that it or something like it will never happen again.
“Violence and every abuse you could think of started when my grandparent’s generation started to be humiliated [and] shamed. Today, my children suffer and my grandchildren have also been exposed to some of that suffering,” Sheila Dick of the Canim Lake Band and survivor of the St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School in Williams Lake addressed the crowd. “Five generations have been affected; my grandparents went, my parents went, I went, my daughter didn’t but she lived a horrible life because of the abuses I exposed her to. I never set out to harm. I never knew another way. Today things are different. I can say that my grandchildren have never seen me drink alcohol or drugs. And that is huge. That tells me that there’s hope.”
Orange Shirt Day originated with Phylis Webstad, a residential survivor who also attended St. Joesph’s in the 1970s. One of her first memories is when the staff of the school took away her orange shirt when she was six years old.
“Her story became very important to me,” said Dick. “It turned into something where I can say her orange shirt represents what we all lost. I can’t speak our language. We lost our freedom; our freedom to hunt and to fish and to go wherever we needed to go, our freedom to speak our language, which there are horror stories of being punished. My husband wasn’t able to speak English and many of my fellow students couldn’t speak English. They suffered. It’s like taking a bunch of you guys and plopping you somewhere you don’t understand the language and being punished because you can’t speak it. That’s what happened. We can’t celebrate who we were.”
Dick went on to explain how the ties to the community and their traditions were replaced with fear, loneliness, shame, terror and a lot of self-destructive behaviour. She said it looks like addiction, drugs, neglect and abandonment.
She also mentioned First Nations children were similar ages to many of the students watching her speak on stage and then only given numbers to be addressed as, instead of their names.
Dick was Number 114 at the St. Joesph’s Mission Residential School.
“That’s who I was for six years. That was another way of dehumanizing us. Take away the name and they don’t belong anywhere.”
An Orange Shirt Day celebration in Gatineau, Que. celebrated 2,800 First Nations children who were found and named who attended residential schools, who never came home to their families.
“There’s another 1,600 who disappeared and go unnamed, so can you imagine somebody took three or four of your friends and they just completely disappeared?” Dick asked the student body. “Poof, they’re gone. You never saw them again. Imagine how the families suffered. Once I asked my youngest daughter, and I had to ask this, this is my training. I had to ask her ‘are you thinking of killing yourself?’ I don’t know how many parents have the bravery to do that but I had to. I was really afraid and I was horrified to hear her answer. I was scared. I remember to this day the disgust she must have felt and she said, ‘why would I kill myself when my ancestors fought so hard for me to be here?’ That was the most wonderful thing I ever heard.”
Dick ended her speech by enforcing the idea that everyone matters, not just children. She said every single elder, adult and student has been a child and 99 per cent of the children, adults, elders in attendance have been taught to some degree that they don’t matter.
“That’s why I have come to appreciate Orange Shirt Day because when we say children matter we are not talking about the children before us, we’re talking about the children before us that have been hurt. My biggest goal, I think, or something we need to work towards is helping each other learn that they matter. You don’t have to go to a teacher or your parents. You have to go inside yourself and decide that you matter. Do what you have to do to find that out. Every child does matter but somewhere inside us, we missed the message.”