Update: Orange Shirt Day was held in Greater Victoria and across Canada on Wednesday. People all over the region could be seen wearing orange clothing, in honour of survivors of the residential school system and their families, along with those who didn’t survive.
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Victoria’s Orange Shirt Day, which recognizes survivors of residential schools, goes virtual this year, with an online ceremony featuring speakers who attended the schools.
The pre-recorded ceremony will feature speeches by Tsartlip elders May Sam and Skip Sam, who will share their personal stories of attending residential schools. Skip Sam died days after his speech was recorded.
Event organizers Kristin Spray and Eddy Charlie will speak about the importance of recognizing the legacy of residential schools and remembering the more than 150,000 children who were forced to attend.
Spray and Charlie have held an event in Centennial Square for the past three years. This year’s ceremony will be streamed on the city’s Facebook page Wednesday starting at noon, and the city is encouraging residents to wear orange on the day.
Charlie said it’s difficult to hold a virtual event for an issue that needs human connection, and he worries about the connections he and Spray have built with schools, hospitals, government agencies and communities losing momentum if they’re not able to meet in person.
“That connection helps us create significant understanding of the effects of residential schools. Like language, if you stop speaking a language for a certain amount of time, it starts to lose its appeal and disappears,” he said. “So we think that if we start talking about residential school, people will soon forget about it.
And we don’t want that to happen.”
Charlie said he often hears people question why survivors continue to talk about residential schools, which closed more than two decades ago. It’s that lack of understanding of the lasting impacts of the schools that make events like Orange Shirt Day important, he said.
“When children came home from residential school, they were completely changed by what trauma they experienced in residential school, whether it be starvation, physical abuse, emotional abuse, or sexual abuse, and we need people to understand that these changes were not good,” Charlie said, adding the impacts continue to affect family relationships.
Organizers will raise the Orange Shirt Day flag and hold a moment of silence for the Indigenous children who did not survive the residential school system. At least 3,200 children never came home from residential schools, according to findings by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.
Special guests include Mayor Lisa Helps, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Aboriginal Health Physician Advisor Dr. Danièle Behn Smith. Phyllis Webstad, whose memory of having her new orange shirt from her grandmother taken from her on her first day at a school near Williams Lake inspired the annual commemorative event, will also speak. Sept. 30 was chosen as the date for an annual event, because it’s the time of year when children were taken from their families.
The residential school system operated 139 schools across Canada from 1831 to 1996.
Indigenous children in Canada were taken from their homes and communities, and placed in institutions run by religious orders in collaboration with the Canadian government. Children as young as four were taken from their homes in what has been called cultural genocide by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
OTHER ORANGE SHIRT DAY EVENTS
Students and staff in Greater Victoria schools will also wear orange to mark the day. The school district says students participate in classroom discussions and activities focused on reconciliation on Sept. 30. This year, students in Grade 5 to 12 will also participate in a virtual event through the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.
Colleges and universities are also planning events to commemorate residential school survivors. The University of Victoria is holding a virtual event featuring a conversation between Phyllis Webstad and chancellor Shelagh Rogers.
Camosun College is encouraging students and staff to watch Picking Up The Pieces: The Making of the Witness Blanket, a 90-minute documentary that describes how local artist Carey Newman created the large-scale art installation made from more than 800 items reclaimed from residential schools, churches and government buildings.
On Wednesday, college faculty and staff can watch a live online panel discussion on the film that includes Newman and others involved in the film or with the college.
Royal Roads University is hosting a virtual discussion between staff to acknowledge the impact of residential schools.