Phyllis Webstad holds up the gathering blanket the staff and students of Dog Creek school made and presented to her during Orange Shirt Day.

Orange Shirt Day lessons of past in today’s classrooms

Phyllis Webstad, who attended St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School in British Columbia, is credited for creating the movement

By Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press

Projected onto a classroom wall, the aerial view of Wellington Park via Google Maps — a green plot tucked between the Assiniboine River and Academy Road — is easily recognizable to Sara Tham’s students.

They know the site as a toboggan hill, or as a home field for baseball, or as a park they bike past when riding along area trails in the neighbourhood.

It’s an approximately 20-minute walk from their elementary school in River Heights.

The nine- and 10-year-olds aren’t as familiar with the grounds’ history as the site of Assiniboia Indian Residential High School, which operated between 1958 and 1973 as part of the federal government’s educational system built to assimilate Indigenous students and destroy First Nation, Metis and Inuit cultures, languages and identities.

Leading up to Orange Shirt Day, recognized annually Sept. 30, Tham has led activities and discussions with her Grade 4/5 students at Robert H. Smith School about the lesser-known history of the Assiniboia plot and how residential schools operated across the country.

“That way they can make connections to what’s happening in their community and I would hope that then… they might be able to access the knowledge, the stories around residential schools, in a different way that hits a little closer to home,” she said during an interview at the school Tuesday.

It’s not lost on Tham educational resources for Orange Shirt Day highlight the importance of Indigenous connections to the land and place-based learning.

Countrywide, Sept. 30 has become known as the day to wear orange to recognize the harms caused by the residential school system and affirm a commitment to ensure all children’s lives are protected and valued.

Phyllis Webstad, who attended St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School in British Columbia, is credited for creating the movement. The colour is symbolic of the orange shirt her grandmother bought her to go to school when Webstad arrived, she was stripped of all her clothing.

Theodore Fontaine has a similar story — but with a childhood favourite Chicago Blackhawks hockey jersey. The 78-year-old, who attended both Fort Alexander and Assiniboia residential schools in Manitoba, recalls his beloved sweater disappearing when he returned to Fort Alexander after summer break one year.

“At seven years old, when you’re deposited into a big stone building, away from all the love and closeness of a family, that’s the most difficult thing to put a kid through. You’ve lost everything at that point,” said Fontaine, who is Anishinaabe from Sagkeeng First Nation.

In 1920, Canadian bureaucrat Duncan Campbell Scott, who oversaw the expansion of the residential school system in the early 1900s, declared his goal was to “get rid of the Indian problem.”

Students experienced physical, mental, spiritual and sexual abuse at the hands of staff at the government- and church-run schools.

While Fontaine said staff “certainly tried hard to kill the Indian in this little guy,” he considers his experience at Assiniboia to be “like a breath of fresh air” compared to life at Fort Alexander.

Student experiences varied, but many came from schools that were “very violent,” said Andrew Woolford, a professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Manitoba, who has researched the site.

In contrast, Woolford said Assiniboia seemed better — in part, because certain staff members came off as more caring and concerned about student well-being than previous administrators.

“It’s hard to keep these two things in mind: that you could have decent people trying to lessen the violence of it, but it’s still a school within a system of assimilation,” he said.

At Robert H. Smith, that’s a challenge Tham is navigating as she teaches her students about the residential school system.

On Tuesday, she showed her class a CBC news clip about Assiniboia, in which Fontaine is featured. In it, he speaks about the acceptance Indigenous students found at Assiniboia. After the viewing, her students reflected on the different stories they have heard about the schools.

Since the start of September, Tham said she’s been exposing her students to different Indigenous perspectives and experiences. She’s incorporated a book about sharing circles and Indigenous music into her class.

“This year, my hope is that we look at history and we look at what’s happening now, in a way that both recognizes the damages that have been done, the complicated events that have happened, but also celebrating the successes that Indigenous people have had,” she said.

As for Orange Shirt Day, Robert H. Smith School is holding a virtual assembly today. Myra Laramee, an elder at the Winnipeg School Division, is expected to speak.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Dinner shows in the Playbill Dining Room are keeping the Chemainus Theatre going during the pandemic. (Photo by Don Bodger)
Dinner events satisfying for the Chemainus Theatre and patrons

Small groups enjoy entertainment and the food in the Playbill Dining Room

Federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, left, joined Rob Douglas, right, NDP candidate for the Cowichan Valley in the upcoming provincial election, on a tour to meet people in Lake Cowichan on Oct. 16 and discuss local issues. (Robert Barron/Citizen) Douglas’s campaign continued to pull out all the stops with a visit on Sunday from Premier John Horgan for some spearfishing in Duncan. (Submitted)
Federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh visits Lake Cowichan

Rob Douglas, NDP’s candidate for Cowichan Valley, joins him

Duncan-based author Jennifer Manuel took home the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize for her first novel, The Heaviness of Things that Float, at the 33rd Annual BC Book Prizes. She will be part of an online reading session on Oct. 22, 2020, featuring Cowichan Valley writers. (Submitted photo)
Cowichan Valley authors to be featured in online readings Oct. 22

The Cowichan Valley Writers Spotlight will feature readings by eight area writers

With local MLA Adam Olsen looking on, BC Greens leader Sonia Furstenau said a Green government would convert BC Ferries into a Crown corporation Wolf Depner/News Staff)
Green leader Sonia Furstenau promises to convert BC Ferries back into Crown corporation

Promise comes Monday afternoon with five days left in campaign

Fuller Lake Arena change rooms only opened up again on Monday, but only for putting on skates and not shower use. (Photo by Don Bodger)
Fuller Lake Arena change rooms only opened up again on Monday, but only for putting on skates and not shower use. (Photo by Don Bodger)
Unusual season of minor hockey slowly taking shape in Cowichan

Teams doing a lot of practicing right now while awaiting the possibility of games

Working smoothly together on May 11, 2020, health minister Adrian Dix, B.C. Liberal health critic Norm Letnick, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and sign language interpreter Nigel Howard. (B.C. government video)
COVID-19 co-operation a casualty of B.C.’s pandemic election

NDP’s Horgan weaponizes senior care, B.C. Liberal Wilkinson calls for ‘wartime economy’

A 34-year-old man was treated for a gunshot wound in Williams Lake Monday, Oct 19, 2020. (Angie Mindus photo - Williams Lake Tribune)
Williams Lake man treated for gunshot wound after accidental shooting: RCMP

Police are reminding residents to ensure firearms are not loaded when handling them

A injection kit is seen inside the newly opened Fraser Health supervised consumption site is pictured in Surrey, B.C., Tuesday, June 6, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. records 127 fatal overdoses in September, roughly 4 each day

Vancouver, Surrey and Victoria continued to see the highest numbers of overdoses

Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Investigators work at the Sagmoen farm in Silver Creek. - Image credit: Observer file photo.
Sex workers allegedly called to farm of Okanagan man convicted of assault, RCMP investigating

Curtis Sagmoen, convicted in relation to assault of sex trade workers, is prohibited from soliciting escorts

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

(Black Press Media files)
Early voters more likely to favour NDP, but overall B.C. election is tightening: poll

According to Elections BC, 383,477 people cast a ballot during advanced voting days

(Pixabay)
Wave of racist emails ‘unleashed’ on B.C. researchers investigating racism in health care

The team has received close to 600 calls and emails since the investigation started in July

A passer-by walks past a COVID-19 testing clinic in Montreal, Friday, Oct. 16, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Canada ‘yet to see’ deaths due to recent COVID surge as cases hit 200,000

Much of the increase in case numbers can be attributed to Ontario and Quebec

Most Read