BIRCH ISLAND—Skies were grey as raindrops plummeted towards the earth, the water leaving a slick trace as it cascaded down the streets in Whitefish River First Nation on Friday. One could have described it as pathetic fallacy, a term for when the weather represents the mood of the day. This was the time of year when thousands of Indigenous children were taken from their homes and brought to residential schools. Some returned home unable to speak their language, some lost a sense of belonging within their culture and some reports suggest 6,000 others never returned home at all.
From an outside perspective it may have seemed to be an opportunity to mourn this dark chapter of Canada’s history. Indeed, there was an undertone of heartache throughout the day’s events.
But that was all it amounted to — an undertone. The streets were filled with smiles, laughter and bright orange shirts as community members and band councillors joined the teachers, staff and students of Shawanosowe School on a walk through the reserve to commemorate the impact of residential schools on Indigenous communities across Turtle Island.
“This is a way to celebrate or acknowledge our history. It’s our duty to ensure our children know about residential schools and the multi-generational effects,” said Esther Osche, band councillor for Whitefish River First Nation.
“It wasn’t always like this,” she said. “There wasn’t always joy, celebration or appreciation that you as a person do matter.”
Friday’s events began with a smudge for all attendees, a prayer, song and some words by school principal Daniel Stargratt. He said his students have the power to make powerful impacts on the world during their lives.
“We’re trying to make our students agents for change,” he said, noting that students between Grades 3 and 6 wrote letters to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and NDP Member of Parliament for Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing Carol Hughes.
They wrote those letters on behalf of students in Kashechewan First Nation, a remote reserve in Ontario along James Bay. There, students have yet to start the school year because the portable classrooms are in a state of disrepair and unsafe for student attendance.
To support students becoming ‘agents for change’ the school brought in a community member who had survived residential school so the children could get a sense of the experience of being removed from one’s language, community and culture.
“We’re a community-based school so we focused on a connection between the school community and survivors of residential schools,” said Principal Stargratt.
Ogimaa Shining Turtle takes the community aspect one step further.
“People talk about the school being in the community. We shifted it to ‘the community is in the school.’ That’s a powerful message on education,” said Ogimaa Shining Turtle.
Shawanosowe School took its Orange Shirt Day commitment further than a one-day event. Bonnie Nahwegahbow, an educational assistant in the Grade 3-4 split class took on the organizing activities for this year’s event, which spanned a full week rather than one day. Dubbed ‘Every Child Matters Week,’ students had the opportunity to speak with residential school survivor Marion McGregor, participate in in-class activities, create a banner that commemorated family members who were directly impacted by residential schools and participate in Friday’s walk to the community centre and back.
Ms. Nahwegahbow said the school invited family members to participate in the event as a nod to the modern goals of including community and family within a school context, as opposed to the residential schools’ policy of separation.
“Residential schools caused family breakdown and intergenerational trauma. Some of these kids are still carrying that. In our school, we get to celebrate who they are,” said Ms. Nahwegahbow.
She added that discovering a sense of self is a crucial aspect of personal development.
“It’s important when they leave school they have a strong identity, so the burden of intergenerational trauma is not so heavy. They’ve got something to get them through that,” said Ms. Nahwegahbow.
Ogimaa Shining Turtle agreed, saying the importance of building leadership, responsibility and pride extends generations into the future.
“It’s going to be up to them to keep these values alive someday,” he said. “We just have to keep moving forward.”