Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Every Child Matters

 You might have noticed more orange than usual around the hallways of Lambton recently. Tuesday, September 30, 2014 was the second annual Orange Shirt Day, a day intended to commemorate the harmful legacy of Indian Residential Schools in Canada. Many members of the Lambton community dressed in orange to show their support for survivors of Canada’s residential school system.

Indian Residential Schools, which separated children from their families and culture, had a devastating effect on Canada’s aboriginal children. Many children in the system were victims of abuse, and the memories survivors share are often horrific. You can learn more about this aspect of Canadian history and recent attempts at reconciliation at the Indigenous Foundations website, hosted by UBC.

The choice to wear orange comes from the story of one survivor, Phyllis, whose grandmother bought her a new shirt to attend her first day of residential school. Here's what Phyllis says about that day: "I remember going to Robinson’s store and picking out a shiny orange shirt.  It had string laced up in front, and was so bright and exciting – just like I felt to be going to school!  When I got to the Mission, they stripped me, and took away my clothes, including the orange shirt!   I never saw it again.  I didn’t understand why they wouldn’t give it back to me, it was mine! The color 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.  All of us little children were crying and no one cared." (Read Phyllis’s full story here.)  

Showing your support to the survivors couldn't be much easier. And it's an interesting form of commemoration, since it's not immediately apparent whether someone is wearing orange because she supports the campaign or because she likes orange. But a whole room full of orange—or hallways full, or a college full—would be a really powerful demonstration. 

I didn't have an orange shirt, so I had to borrow one from a friend. Several people commented throughout the day on my shirt—not people who were interested in the campaign, but people who just liked the fancy shirt I wore. Each time, I was in a bit of a hurry, and I was tempted to say just "thanks" and move along, but I forced myself to slow down and to say why I was wearing orange. And that, I think, is the real benefit of Orange Shirt Day: it's a day that reminds us that we can't skirt around this history because it's difficult. We must learn about it, and we must take the time to speak about it and ask questions. 

Here are some of the SSW students and faculty showing off their orange!

I'm now reading Edmund Metatawabin's Up Ghost River, an autobiographical account of the legacy of residential school. I'm finding it very difficult to read. I've read about residential schools in the past, but now that I'm a mother, I can't read these stories of terrified children being stolen away from their families without thinking of my own kids. But again, the fact that I'm responding to these recountings and finding them difficult doesn't seem like a reason to turn away—and reading the history and feeling sad isn't enough, either.

Metatawabin visited Sarnia in late September to read from his book. At the end of question period, a young white woman stood up in the back of the room. "What can I do?" she asked. She'd clearly read Metatawabin's story—one that represents so many others like his, one that's full of the memories of suffering and horrific abuse at residential school—and she was left feeling guilty, and angry, and ashamed, and frustrated. Metatawabin said she should keep reading, and she should tell her friends what she'd read. Keep reading and asking questions.

For more information on Orange Shirt Day, please visit Every Child Matters.

-Erica Kelly, Project Lead, Centre for Social Justice

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