Transforming communities, one story at a time
Every September 30, the University of Victoria and the Greater Victoria community hold events and wear orange shirts as part of an ongoing process of truth and reconciliation between Indigenous people and colonial settlers. The story of Phyllis Webstad and how the orange shirt she received from her grandmother was stripped from her as she was taken into the residential school system is now a powerful rallying symbol. Communities across the nation use these shirts to raise awareness about Canada’s troubling history with residential schools and its treatment of Indigenous children.
Orange Shirt Day first took shape in Victoria as an initiative undertaken by the efforts of two individuals in Camosun College’s Indigenous Studies program in 2014. The first city-wide ceremony was held in 2015 and Mayor Lisa Helps instituted Orange Shirt Day as an official municipally-recognized day in 2016.
In an interview with the Martlet, residential school survivor Eddy Charlie and Indigenous ally Kristin Spray speak of the challenges and triumphs that they have experienced throughout the journey of bringing Orange Shirt Day to Victoria.
The Martlet: You two met through the Camosun Indigenous Study program and brought Orange Shirt Day to the City of Victoria.
Charlie: That’s right.
UVic is now also doing Orange Shirt Day on September 30.
Charlie: I actually think they were inspired [by us]. A lot of students come from Camosun to UVic to finish their studies. [UVic Elders experienced Orange Shirt Day] at Camosun and they felt the impact of what we did. We heard that the president of Camosun mentioned that from now on, every year, Camosun College will have Orange Shirt Day events. UVic felt compelled to follow our example.
Why did you want to bring Orange Shirt Day to Victoria?
Spray: I went to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Vancouver in 2013, and that’s when I heard Phyllis Webstad share her story of having her orange shirt taken from her as a child on the first day of residential school. And I heard other stories that were very upsetting. As a result of that experience, I entered the Indigneous Studies program. In 2014, we heard that Phillis was holding ceremony in her community. Eddie, myself, and a handful of classmates found anything orange that we could to wear that on the day. There was something really sad in our best attempt and effort to wear orange and acknowledge that every child matters, [especially] residential school survivors. I felt like we needed to do something more. I asked Eddie if we could work together to raise awareness, and it took a while before he was open to walking that path together — and I’m learning more and more about why that decision was so difficult.
Charlie: I am a survivor of the Kuper Island Residential School, so I understand what happened to the children. All across Canada, there were 139 residential schools that operated from 1858 to 1996. They were made to forget their language, their cultures, and traditions. During the time that they were in school, they experienced hunger, physical abuse, emotional abuse, the deprivation of family, and — the one that’s probably the most harmful that nobody speaks about — sexual abuse.
Try to visualize a five-year-old child going to a place where they experience physical and sexual abuse for an extended period of time. And then try to envision what their response will be when they leave school and go back home to their community. No one can truly answer that.
But I lived it. When I came home — angry, frustrated, and there was a trust factor that had been removed, not just trust for the people in the school, but also [for] the family that allowed me to go to the school. When students come home from residential school they don’t feel like they had a place of value anymore or belonging. That anger starts to grow [with] the frustration. As many of these children grew up, they would get involved in alcoholism and drug addiction as a coping mechanism against their pain and anger.
When you think about the 150 000 children who experienced this, you have to think about the mothers and fathers who had to watch their children be taken away. The siblings wonder, where’s my brother? Where’s my sister? And when the children were grown up, they were like, why is this happening? Why did this happen to me? What did I do to deserve all of this?
Today, they are still wondering. They are still angry, and they are still frustrated, and they are passing out that anger and frustration to the younger generation, their children and grandchildren — generational trauma.
This is your fifth year doing this event here. Do you see any change?
Charlie: Honestly, yes. It’s taken a long time for people to truly understand. At first, people thought we were out to create sympathy for Indigenous people. But we wanted them to understand the history behind residential schools so that we can allow the Indigenous people to bring healing to the communities in their own way. We hope that it inspires and influences other people to come out and share their stories. We look at UVic — UVic has got their own event now. Schools all across British Columbia now have Orange Shirt Day.
How have Indigenous communities responded to Orange Shirt Day?
Charlie: This is the second year that they’ve reacted [positively] to the event. In the past, they were very aggressive to me — some even spit on me, punched me. Not all of [the Indigenous communities], but a lot of them didn’t feel comfortable with me going out into the community and talking about the effects of residential schools because my story was mixed with so many other people’s stories, and I think some people think I’m telling stories about them. All of those stories are so similar. But now, a lot of Indigenous communities have chosen to respond in a more gentle way and have become participants. We’ve had two schools from Indigenous communities that have invited us to speak, and the impact was powerful. Tsartlip [First Nation] did not want us speaking about Orange Shirt Day at their community, but when we spoke at one of the Indigenous schools over there, the next year [Tsartlip] had their own Orange Shirt Day in their reserve.