Reconciling the pain of residential schools

Last week’s Orange Shirt Day encouraged discussion, healing and commemoration

TRU President Alan Shaver, Vernie Clement with his band, students and faculty pose together for Orange Shirt Day on campus. (Wade Tomko/The Omega)

TRU President Alan Shaver, Vernie Clement with his band, students and faculty pose together for Orange Shirt Day on campus. (Wade Tomko/The Omega)

While the pain and grief caused by residential schools still remains, last Friday gave TRU a chance celebrate the resilience of Canada’s Aboriginal peoples and how far they have come in championing the issues of their communities.

An event celebrated in schools, universities and communities across the nation, Orange Shirt Day started as the legacy of the St. Joseph Mission residential school commemoration event held in Williams Lake in the Spring of 2013. Gaining its name from the story of Phyllis Webstad, Orange Shirt Day has become an annual opportunity to discuss the effects that residential schools had and still have on First Nations communities.

Paul Michel, TRU’s executive director of Aboriginal education, explained how Webstad had her bright new orange shirt taken away on her first day of residential school.

“Unfortunately the historic trauma of residential schools is that the students were stripped of all their clothing and issued uniforms,” Michel said. “Phyllis never did see that orange t-shirt again. So her first memory of her most exciting first day of school was of humiliation, devastation and shame.”

Vernie Clement and his fellow drummers play the honour song. (Wade Tomko/The Omega)

Vernie Clement and his fellow drummers play the honour song. (Wade Tomko/The Omega)

Michel would go on to talk about how Phyllis’s treatment was representative of the pain and trauma many Aboriginal students felt upon entering the residential school system. Yet the day is about more than just looking back at damage caused by residential schools, Michel said.

“This day also celebrates reconciliation, balance and harmony,” he said. “This day is bringing every Canadian citizen, every visitor to this land and showing them that Aboriginal peoples are both resistant and resilient.”

A similar sentiment is carried by Aboriginal Elder Estella Patrick Moller of the Nak’azdli First Nation.

“I equivalate the residential school system to the murder of our spirit, and they made a valiant effort to do that,” she said. “But as resilient people, we survived, though at a cost. So the orange shirt for me is a declaration that we are here, that we do know our languages, our culture, our spirit and our souls.”

Further healing must be accomplished through education, Moller believes. She hopes that institutions like TRU will one day be able to fully incorporate courses on Aboriginal culture into their curriculum.

Students and faculty participate in a round dance in the Campus Commons. (Wade Tomko/The Omega)

Students and faculty participate in a round dance in the Campus Commons. (Wade Tomko/The Omega)

For Jeffrey McNeil-Seymour, social work faculty member and Tk’emlups te Secwepemc member, this change in education must come from the top and work its way down, as well.

“I think that in terms of making courses on Aboriginal education for students mandatory, that there must also be mandatory training and education opportunities for the faculty who will be teaching it,” McNeil-Seymour said.

“This discussion shouldn’t just stop at the end of Orange Shirt Day,” he added.

While Orange Shirt Day presents an opportunity to discuss the lasting effects of the cultural genocide caused by the residential school system, for many, like Vernie Clement, an Aboriginal mentor and community coordinator at TRU, the day is a chance to celebrate how far Canada’s First Nations peoples have come.

“For me, I take on honouring all their sacrifices. I’ve lost a lot of relatives, my dad included, to the effects of residential schools,” Clement said. “To be a part of that change up here at university, to see students pursuing their educations and their dreams, I think that is just the best part for me personally.”