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.
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.
“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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
“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.
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.”
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