UNFC orange shirt day

Ken Kellar

In recognition of “Orange Shirt Day” across the country, the United Native Friendship Centre (UNFC) held a ceremony to pay honour to and remember those affected by residential schools.

The ceremony was held at the Circle of Life building on Mowat Avenue on Monday, where members of the public were invited to hear the story of the original orange shirt that gave rise to the movement.

UNFC executive assistant Melanie McPherson opened the ceremony following a traditional drum song and a prayer from Buddy Loyie, explaining to the crowd the significance of “Orange Shirt Day.”

“Between the late 1800s and 1996, the federal government forced many First Nations, Inuit and Metis children to leave the warmth of their families and attend cold, overcrowded residential schools where abuse was rampant,” McPherson said.

“Children and parents often did not see each other for years, and this went on for generations.”

McPherson explained that at an event in William’s Lake, B.C., a residential school survivor named Phyllis Webstad told the story of her time in a residential school, where a new orange shirt she had bought was taken away from her and never given back. That orange shirt became the symbol of the movement, and McPherson said it has come to represent the damages done by the residential school system.

“A new orange shirt, taken from one child, has become a symbol of the many losses experienced by Indigenous students, families and communities because of residential schooling,” she said.

“Among them: the loss of family and parental care, the loss of self-worth and well-being, the loss of language and culture, and the loss of freedom.”

Following the introduction, UNFC homelessness outreach worker Deb Emes read the book “The Orange Shirt Story,” an illustrated book written by Webstad to recount her tale.

McPherson said the impact of the residential school system is still something the Indigenous community is dealing with, and “Orange Shirt Day” is important as a way to remember and commemorate the survivors, as well as those who died in the system.

“We have a lot of residential school survivors in this area and we at the Friendship Centre felt that we really need to honour our residential school survivors,” McPherson explained.

“Even though the last residential school closed, I believe it was 1996 was the last closure, even though generations ahead of us attended those schools, it still filters down to different generations.”

She went on to say that when she grew up, it wasn’t common for survivors to speak about their time in residential school, even with their own families.

“They never talked about it because of the horrible situation and they just kept their privacy,” McPherson said.

“My dad himself attended residential school and to this day there are still stories, there’s still stuff that happened that he hasn’t spoke about. He’s told us, once we became adults, just the experiences that him and his siblings and his friends have had there.”

McPherson gets emotional when she speaks about residential schools, and said that the majority of staff at the Friendship Centre have been affected by the schools in some way, which is why they hold their own “Orange Shirt Day.”

“It’s just such a huge thing,” she said.

“It was so long. So many years people were forced to attend these schools and if there’s a way that we can do it in one day that is not, I can’t use the word celebrate, but commemorate it straight across the country, then we are going to participate in that.”

Buddy Loyie works with the UNFC and knows first-hand the damage inflicted by the residential school system, as he spent 12 years in one.

He runs a men’s group with the UNFC and says that the impacts of the schools reverberate through generations, from parents to children who never even attended a residential school.

“I know what abuse is,” Loyie explained.

“I lived under it all my life and it marks you, abuse, the hurt, even as you grow up. If you’ve been abused in your home you carry that into your adulthood and you carry that rage and anger inside you and if you have no way to dispel it then you take it out on people.”

Loyie said that his own experience in the residential school damaged his relationship with his children, not because he physically abused them, but because he wasn’t capable of showing them affection.

“I couldn’t hug a child,” he said.

“I couldn’t hug anyone. You can hurt children that way.”

Loyie said days like “Orange Shirt Day” are important for showing those affected by residential schools that there are ways to learn to deal with the damages caused by the system, and providing them with a safe place to access their emotions.

For McPherson, the importance of “Orange Shirt Day” is remembering all those who were lost or affected.

“They weren’t adults, they were children,” she said.

“They were scared. They were taken out of their homes, forced to speak a different language, forced to drop everything that they learned at home. And it’s sad and like I said, it still affects people today.

“We’re still feeling the effects of it.”