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Indigenous educator reflects on residential schools, First Nations challenges on Orange Shirt Day

Edmonton educator reflects on residential schools’ impact on Orange Shirt Day
WATCH ABOVE: Amanda Lamothe works with Edmonton Catholic Schools' Indigenous learning services department. On Monday, she spoke about residential schools and their impact on Orange Shirt Day.

As an Orange Shirt Day event was held at Our Lady of Peace Catholic Elementary School in northwest Edmonton on Monday, a local Indigenous educator reflected on why the annual tradition resonates for her community and across Canada.

“It’s our role to create this awareness of the truth, and also more of an appreciation… [of] our history and our culture,” said Amanda Lamothe, who works with Edmonton Catholic Schools’ Indigenous learning services department.
“So I appreciate schools now taking a stand, making Orange Shirt Day very popular and well-known across Canada, but also [for promoting] other events that we have throughout the year.”
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Orange Shirt Day takes place annually to reflect on one of the darkest chapters in Canadian history and sees people come together in the spirit of reconciliation between Canada and its First Nations.

It began as an event in Williams Lake, B.C. in 2013 to remember residential schools. The orange shirts are a nod to the cruel story of a six-year-old girl named Phyllis, who had her new orange shirt taken away from her on her first day of school at the St. Joseph Mission. It has since seen similar events spring up across Canada.

READ MORE: Orange Shirt Day honours residential school survivors. Why isn’t it a stat holiday?

“[The story of the orange shirt is] a common experience among many people who attended residential schools where, it’s not just an orange shirt, perhaps it was a brand new buckskin jacket or brand new moccasins — these beautiful things that… [were meant] to give you strength and to give you a foundation so that you had courage and that safety feeling about going into these new places, these schools,” Lamothe said. “To have those things taken away is quite a shock to the system because that was going to be your comfort.

“At least you were going to be able to wear comfortable shoes, warm clothing, but a lot of that changed… the moment you walked in the door.”

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Lamothe said she is proud of the work she is able to do through Edmonton Catholic Schools and that the city is blessed with many initiatives aimed at promoting Indigenous culture and heritage. She said in many cases, family members from consecutive generations were sent to residential schools and the loss of culture and identity affected not only them, but also the generations after them.

“You didn’t want to teach your children… [their Indigenous[ language because [in residential schools] they were going to go and be punished for speaking the language,” she said. “Your language was lost and disappeared almost. And so there’s something about the language also that you are missing in translation from English to Cree or Sioux or Dene.

“These languages hold a spirit in them as well so that you’re missing a big part of it when you don’t have that.”

READ MORE: New website launched for residential school survivors to decide fate of their records

Lamothe said people who went to residential schools often developed “a disconnect” with their communities.

“When you come back to your community, there’s some type of a loss where you can’t describe it, but you just don’t belong,” she said. “You’re supposed to be home, this is supposed to be safe, but it’s not. There’s a part missing.

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“People don’t recognize you, you don’t recognize them, you don’t know any of the customs and traditions — so you’re basically a stranger in your own home. And then, after generations down from there, you get people that basically learned a new way of life through the schools and then come into urban centres and live their life as best they can, but there’s big pieces missing.”

Lamothe said the concept of the circle is very important among Indigenous people.

“In that circle, we build family, we build spirit, we build teachings about families and children and raising our children, but all those circles were broken,” she said. “And so in the city, we’re trying to put those pieces back together.

“Even for myself, living in the city, I can’t go back home even though it has nothing to do with residential school. I’m in the same boat as a lot of the homeless people downtown and people that are transient and struggling with addictions and different problems in their life because there’s a major disconnect to who you are, where you come from.

“I’m just doing my best, in the city, but there still is that disconnect. And so even though it didn’t happen to me, it has sort of a ripple effect in our families and our communities.”

Sponsored by the federal government, Canada’s Christian-run residential schools were used to assimilate Indigenous children into white Canadian culture. The practice began in the late 19th century and the last school was closed in 1996.

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READ MORE: Alberta’s Indigenous relations minister calls for end to ‘racism and misunderstanding’

Lamothe said that on Orange Shirt Day she was also thinking about “a lot of stereotypes that are still out there” about Indigenous people.

“A lot of Canadians think a lot of negative stuff about Indigenous people, especially about taxes and money… but remember, this was our land, we were here first,” she said. “So it’s about that treaty acknowledgement that we will live together and we will co-operate with each other.”

View photos in the gallery below:

A special event was held at Our Lady of Peace Catholic Elementary School in Edmonton on Monday to mark Orange Shirt Day.
A special event was held at Our Lady of Peace Catholic Elementary School in Edmonton on Monday to mark Orange Shirt Day. Global News
A special event was held at Our Lady of Peace Catholic Elementary School in Edmonton on Monday to mark Orange Shirt Day.
A special event was held at Our Lady of Peace Catholic Elementary School in Edmonton on Monday to mark Orange Shirt Day. Global News
A special event was held at Our Lady of Peace Catholic Elementary School in Edmonton on Monday to mark Orange Shirt Day.
A special event was held at Our Lady of Peace Catholic Elementary School in Edmonton on Monday to mark Orange Shirt Day. Global News
A special event was held at Our Lady of Peace Catholic Elementary School in Edmonton on Monday to mark Orange Shirt Day.
A special event was held at Our Lady of Peace Catholic Elementary School in Edmonton on Monday to mark Orange Shirt Day. Global News
Amanda Lamothe works with Edmonton Catholic Schools' Indigenous learning services department.She spoke about Orange Shirt Day on Monday.
Amanda Lamothe works with Edmonton Catholic Schools' Indigenous learning services department.She spoke about Orange Shirt Day on Monday. Global News