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

Ben Williams, second from left, receives the Rotary Club of Duncan Student of the Month Award for September from club president Gregg Perry and Student of the Month program coordinator Kim Barnard. To the left is teacher sponsor Tom Veenstra. (Kevin Rothbauer/Citizen)
Duncan Christian standout is Rotary Student of the Month for September

Ben Williams has made an impression at DCS since day one

Cowichan LMG’s Michael Fusick plows through a Nanaimo defender during last Friday’s game at the Sherman Road turf. (Kevin Rothbauer/Citizen)
Depth a concern for Cowichan LMG

Div. 1 club expecting reinforcements soon

The City of Duncan is applying to the province for a grant that would cover most of the costs of the new Cairnsmore roundabout that is planned the intersection of Government, College and Cairnsmore streets. (File photo)
City of Duncan looking to grant to cover cost of Cairnsmore traffic circle

Federal government would cover 60%, province would pick up the other 40%.

Angie Fournier. who served as office coordinator for the Cowichan Lake Community Services, stands with the society’s community bus in this picture. (File photo)
Community Service Society vital for Lake Cowichan

Dozens of programs and other services offered

Premier John Horgan and Rob Douglas, BC NDP candidate for Cowichan Valley, meet with Cowichan First Nation elders, as they demonstrate spearfishing along the river. (Submitted)
Horgan acknowledges A&E sector hit hard by COVID-19, but showing signs of recovery

Hollywood North doing better than Hollywood South, Horgan says

B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry gives a daily briefing on COVID-19 cases at an almost empty B.C. Legislature press theatre in Victoria, B.C., on March 25, 2020. (Don Craig/B.C. government)
B.C. sees 223 new COVID-19 cases, now 2,009 active

Two new care home outbreaks in Surrey, Burnaby

100 Mile Conservation officer Joel Kline gingerly holds an injured but very much alive bald eagle after extracting him from a motorist’s minivan. (Photo submitted)
B.C. driver thought he retrieved a dead bald eagle – until it came to life in his backseat

The driver believed the bird to be dead and not unconscious as it turned out to be

Chastity Davis-Alphonse took the time to vote on Oct. 21. B.C’s general Election Day is Saturday, Oct. 24. (Chastity Davis-Alphonse Facebook photo)
B.C. reconciliation advocate encourages Indigenous women to vote in provincial election

Through the power of voice and education Chastity Davis-Alphonse is hopeful for change

White Rock RCMP Staff Sgt. Kale Pauls has released a report on mental health and policing in the city. (File photos)
White Rock’s top cop wants to bill local health authority for lengthy mental-health calls

‘Suggestion’ included in nine-page review calling for ‘robust’ support for healthcare-led response

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

A Le Chateau retail store is shown in Montreal on Wednesday July 13, 2016. Le Chateau Inc. says it is seeking court protection from creditors under the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act to allow it to liquidate its assets and wind down its operations.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Clothing retailer Le Chateau plans to close its doors, files for CCAA protection

Le Chateau said it intends to remain fully operational as it liquidates its 123 stores

Green party Leader Sonia Furstenau arrives to announce her party’s election platform in New Westminster, B.C., on October 14, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. Green party says it’s raised nearly $835,000 in 38 days

NDP Leader John Horgan is holding his final virtual campaign event

U.S. border officers at the Peace Arch crossing arrested two men on California warrants this week. (File photo)
Ottawa predicts system delays, backlogs unless court extends life of refugee pact

Canada and the United States recognize each other as safe places to seek protection

Most Read