Rev. Yme Woensdregt
Phyllis Webstad, of the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation, tells the story of her first day at the St. Joseph Mission School (an Indian Residential School) in Williams Lake, BC.
“I went to the Mission for one school year in 1973–1974. I had just turned 6 years old. I lived with my grandmother on the Dog Creek reserve. We never had very much money, but somehow my granny managed to buy me a new outfit to go to the Mission school. 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 wore it again. I didn’t understand why they wouldn’t give it back to me, it was mine! I didn’t want to be at school anymore, but I had to stay there for 300 sleeps.
“The colour 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.
“I was 13.8 years old and in grade 8 when my son Jeremy was born. Because my grandmother and mother both attended residential school for 10 years each, I never knew what a parent was supposed to be like. With the help of my aunt, Agnes Jack, I was able to raise my son and have him know me as his mother.
“I went to a treatment center for healing when I was 27 and have been on this healing journey since then. I finally get it, that the feeling of worthlessness and insignificance, ingrained in me from my first day at the mission, affected the way I lived my life for many years. Even now, when I know nothing could be further than the truth, I still sometimes feel that I don’t matter. Even with all the work I’ve done!”
You can read her story and the stories of other survivors of Indian Residential Schools in “Beyond the Orange Shirt Story.” Canadians finally begun listening to survivors about their horrific experiences. That’s an exceptionally good thing.
This year, we observe the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on September 30. We honour the lost children and survivors of residential schools, their families and communities. We commemorate a part of our tragic history as a nation. We mark the ongoing impacts of residential schools which has led to generational trauma.
What can we do on this day?
The easiest thing is to wear an orange shirt. We can remember Phyllis’s story, and the stories of thousands of other indigenous children who were ripped from the arms of their parents and sent to residential schools. The government removed them from their families and their culture and spirituality, trying to assimilate them into the white, Christian, Eurocentric culture around them. They wanted to “beat the Indian out of” these precious children. Genocide is a strong word, but it is not too strong. It accurately describes the official policy of the Canadian government.
But we can do much more. I am angry that I never learned any of this. Not in elementary school. Not in high school. Not in university. No one said a word about this in my schooling. Equally important, there were no graves around the schools I attended.
It should shock us that so many unmarked graves have been “discovered” at former Indian Residential Schools—Kamloops; Saskatchewan; the Southern Gulf Islands of BC; Brandon, Manitoba; and right here in Cranbrook. So far, over 5000 unmarked graves have been discovered. It is a national shame.
80–year–old Elder Florence Sparvier, a survivor of the Marieval Indian Residential School in southern Saskatchewan, remembered, “They made us believe we didn’t have souls. They pounded it into us …. When I say pounding, I mean pounding. Those nuns were really mean to us.”
We need to learn. There are free online courses about the history of Indigenous Peoples in Canada. Our government has several websites with basic information about the Residential School System—just google “Canada National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.” In a very few minutes, you can learn that there were 140 federally run Indian Residential Schools which operated in Canada between 1831 and 1998, and that the last one closed only 23 years ago.
Take time to read the 94 Calls to Action issued by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which “address the ongoing impact of residential schools on survivors and their families … [and] also provide a path for government and Indigenous and non–Indigenous communities to create a joint vision of reconciliation.”
Wear orange. Learn.
Thirdly, listen. Listen to the painful stories of survivors, many of which are posted online. Listen to the stories which indigenous people have been telling for centuries about who they are. Hear their stories, discover their culture, and experience their creation and communal spirituality.
Wear orange. Learn. Listen
Finally, connect. Meet the indigenous people where you live. Develop friendships with them. Work with them so that, having heard the truth, we can work towards reconciliation.
Tommy Douglas once said, “We are all in this world together, and the only test of our character is how we look after the least fortunate among us. How we look after each other, not how we look after ourselves. That’s all that really matters.” Desmond Tutu, who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, reminds us, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of the mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
Last week, I wrote about Good Samaritans who transform the world with their ethic based in love. This week, engaging fully in the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is that kind of Good Samaritan action. Join us — and transform the way we live together.