On Sept. 30, approximately 150 students, faculty and members of the community met in the campus commons to honour the Indigenous children who were sent to residential schools across North America.
The ceremony began with a prayer, and members of the Secwépemc nation performed an honour song for the people afterwards. Everyone that attended was asked to stand in a circle outside of the Campus Activity Centre. This symbolized the school and community standing together with the Indigenous members, coming together in a partnership.
This day was started by Phyllis Webstad in 2013, who lives in Williams Lake and is an alumnus of Thompson Rivers University. Webstad was sent to a residential school, and when she arrived, the orange shirt her grandmother had made her was taken away.
“It was the feeling of worthlessness and insignificance that shaped her life into promoting reconciliation,” Paul Michel, Executive Director of Indigenous Education at TRU talked about Webstad’s experience. “‘Every child matters’ is the message [Webstad] wants everyone to get from Orange Shirt Day.”
Michel shared his personal connection to Orange Shirt Day. “When I was born, my dad was teaching at a residential school. He didn’t want to work there, but it was the only place the Canadian government would let him work with his teaching certificate.”
The residential schools were a brutal example of colonization, racism and exploitation of Indigenous children. However, Michel explained, having Indigenous teachers there were seen as ‘rays of light’ for the students. “The system was evil, but not everyone there was evil.”
President Brett Fairbairn spoke at the event, “This historic trauma is one of the biggest stains on Canadian history, and it’s part of Canada’s truth that our governments, churches, and other institutions are responsible for historic trauma that affects Indigenous people.”
The work that TRU is doing to bring Indigenization to the campus was discussed. Many programs are busy making sure their academic service plans include Indigenous ideas. The Education & Social Work Faculty has done lots of work with Knowledge Makers, a Canadian award-winning Indigenous research network, and the Coyote project.
Along with this, the Education and Indigenous Education department are doing Secwepemc research ethics protocol into this month, which is being led by Secwépemc elder Gary Gottfriedson.
Rick Alec, a board member of Round Lake Treatment Centre, and a founding member of the Indian Residential School Survivor Society shared his experience of attending the Mission and Kamloops Indian residential schools for eleven years.
“I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I didn’t go through all of that,” Alec explained. “It’s not up to the younger generations to have to deal with the residential school trauma. It’s up to my generation and the older generations that were directly affected by the residential schools, and it’s our responsibility to deal with the issues we faced.”
He talked a little about the work he does at Round Lake, and how the purpose of the centre is for people to heal, and to get a grounding of traditions and ceremonies in order to move away from addiction.
“It’s tough when you’ve been in survival mode for 30 years,” Alec shared. “That’s how you learn to stuff your feelings down. When you start feeling, it hurts like hell. One of the biggest things I like to say is, get it right with the guy or girl upstairs, because that’s the only person that can help you mentally, emotionally and spiritually.”
The event concluded with a performance of a Secwépemc friendship song, and people were asked to shake hands and greet one another. Michel commented saying he believes Orange Shirt Day will continue to grow every year at TRU. “I want to see the circle [of people] stretched across the entire campus commons. I know we can do it.”