Thompson schools mark Orange Shirt Day to honour residential school survivors

High school students kicked off three days of Orange Shirt Day recognition in Thompson with the first of the school’s two walks Sept. 29.

A second walk is being held Oct. 1 for R.D. Parker Collegiate students who attend in-person classes on Thursday and Friday every week.

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Students pinned up orange shirts on a clothesline outside the school’s front entrance, then walked around the UCN Drive loop en masse before gathering back on the school’s front lawn to listen to speeches by a former residential school student, the grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO) and the school principal.

Rose Hart, who attended residential school in Sagkeeng for six years, beginning when she was six years old, said it was traumatic to be taken away from her mother and put on a train to Winnipeg in The Pas and then be separated from here older siblings when she arrived. During her first year at residential school, she had pneumonia and was separated from the other students in the young girls’ dormitory.

“One day my older sister brought me supper and I remember clinging on to her and hanging on to her and crying and saying ‘Don’t leave me, don’t leave me,’” she said. “After that happened they never allowed her to come back up and bring my meal.”

Hart has spent many years working with former students of residential schools in O-Pipon-Na-PiwIn Cree Nation at South Indian Lake, as well as serving as a statement gatherer and regional co-ordinator with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and a community engagement co-ordinator with the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, where all the documents related to former residential school students are archived.

“I went across Canada and I talked to the former students, letting them know where all their documents are,” she said. “I’m determined to live and continue doing work for the creator and to continue to speak to people about former students of residential schools and to continue to help our communities heal.”

MKO Grand Chief Garrison Settee, whose grandmother and some other family members attended residential schools, says he completed a unit on the schools when he was a Grade 12 teacher and was horrified by some of the things he learned.

“Imagine if you’re a six-year-old and you’re away from home and you’re away from your family and your only language is your Indigenous language and you start to try to speak and communicate and you get hit for speaking your language. That is something that I cannot fathom but it happened. That’s only the tip of the iceberg of the abuse that went on in there.”

While the stories about what happened at residential schools can be uncomfortable, RDPC principal Bonnie Rempel  says it’s important not to forget what happened in these institutions designed to assimilate Indigenous children.

“They are part of our history and we need to understand them before we can learn and grow,” she said.

Other School District of Mystery Lake schools are holding events Sept 30 to mark Orange Shirt Day, said district co-superintendent Lorie Henderson at the school board’s Sept. 29 meeting.

“All our schools are participating in a variety of ways,” she said. including a Grade 4 class that is re-enacting the first day of students arriving at residential schools.

Since 2013, people across Canada have donned orange shirts on Sept. 30 in honour of Phyllis Webstad, who had a new orange shirt, along with reminders of her Indigenous culture, taken away when she first arrived at a British Columbia residential school in 1973. Webstad also published a children’s book called The Orange Shirt Story in September 2018 in the hopes of spreading her story to a younger audience.

 

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