Orange Shirt Day for Truth and Reconciliation – September 30th and every day

Tomorrow, September 30th, is Orange Shirt Day. In schools, we will commemorate this day on Monday by donning orange and discussing with our students what it means. “Orange Shirt Day” recalls the beautiful, brand-new, bright-orange shirt that was taken away from Phyllis Webstad at age six, on her first day at Mission Residential School in 1973.

orange-shirt-day
This year’s official orange shirt – art by Janet Cromarty of Kasabonika First Nation, writing by Scarlett Verbeek of Grindrod Elementary School.

My daughter also happens to turn six tomorrow. She, like Phyllis, was proud to be starting grade school this year, being in Grade 1 – and also with a carefully-chosen outfit. I walked her to school through our own pretty neighbourhood, to a school that is full of compassionate educators who work hard to create welcoming classrooms, and to teach inclusion and character development. She had a complete nutritious lunch and a nice jacket for the chilly weather. When she got home that day, she declared: “I LOVE Grade One!!

I try to imagine taking my child – or being forced to let her go – to a school far away, where I won’t see her for many months. Or even years. I try to imagine her staying at that place where she is underfed, underclothed, expected to speak a language she doesn’t know, made to do manual labour, punished frequently and physically, and forbidden to speak to or even acknowledge her brother. And can’t see her parents at all. It is too awful to contemplate for long.

I often think about this, especially since visiting the Mohawk Institute Residential School and having the privilege of hearing survivors speak about their experiences. It’s a chilly, forbidding place. Thousands of children learned misery between its walls.

Below is what I wrote, compulsively, after my visit to the Mohawk Institute almost a year ago. I know this is not my story, and my voice is not an important one in this discussion. I can only say that I’m haunted by this tragedy, in a tiny shadow of the sorrow and trauma plaguing so many, and this is how I begin to process. (Thank you, Emi, for helping me clarify these thoughts.)

***

Assimilation

 

Maybe you were one of the tiny ones 

And you cried every day

In your scratchy clothes and hard shoes

So the bigger kids hoisted you

Atop the lockers so you could cling

To the hot water pipe

Warm like your mama’s arm.

 

Maybe you arrived hearty

so you were picked 

most often

to slug your friends in a dank

basement echoing

with unholy cries and money

changing hands.

 

Maybe you weren’t a fighter

so you were picked 

most often

to be summoned to the rumbling

boiler room where no one 

would hear the sinning sounds

from their faraway numbered beds.

 

Certainly you were strapped

for drudgery unfinished

clothes askew

that apple you picked for your sister

especially for your tongue

impertinent to theirs.

 

Of course you hungered

after every meal on and on

and for rhythms

sun in your lungs

sheltering voices

fragrant medicines

a soft hazy nest.

 

Perhaps you crept – shinnied – fled

streaked through the trees

but landed in the hole

in the wall under the stairs

just you

and the salt they gave so your cheeks

would look plump.

 

Perhaps you died

in a narrow bed, lungs clouded 

in a struggle, wounds streaming

in the woods, limbs like stones

reaching for your ancestors

 

or perhaps you lived with your broken 

spirit tolling as the pieces

fell and kept falling

you collected what you could

and wear them every day

shards piercing your scars

wondering if someday sorry

might mean something

***

Thanks for reading today. You can learn more at Where Are The Children and We Were So Far Away. You might consider donating to Indspire. And if you haven’t watched/listened to The Secret Path yet… although Gord Downie was not an indigenous voice, this work is a valuable access point for those who understand best through music. And of course – please consider wearing an orange shirt on Orange Shirt Day.

***


 

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3 thoughts on “Orange Shirt Day for Truth and Reconciliation – September 30th and every day

  1. Auntie CL says:

    This post and poem break my heart, already broken from the realities I learned about at the mush hole, too. And Cheney Wenjack and all the children he represents.
    My orange shirt is ready for tomorrow.
    Thanks for your thoughts and these links.

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