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Orange Shirt Day confronts residential schools, tackles reconciliation

“It's not just a shirt that commemorates this moment, but also years and years of very difficult history."

By Paula E. Kirman Contributor

Hundreds of students, politicians, dignitaries, and members of the public took part in Orange Shirt Day. Edmonton’s City Hall was filled with a sea of orange shirts on Sept. 29. Officially, Orange Shirt Day is recognized on Sept. 30, but the event is commemorated on days leading up to Sept. 30 as well.

Those in attendance confronted the history of the residential school system, while looking towards the future with a spirit of reconciliation.

Dr. Wilton Littlechild, grand chief of the Confederation of Treaty 6 First Nations, acknowledged the children and youth in the audience.

“I am reminded that for many years I was your age and probably your size in three different residential schools for 14 years,” he said. Littlechild was one of the three commissioners of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“It's not just a shirt that commemorates this moment, but also years and years of very difficult history where young people were taken from their families, their language and culture. Those most important things that make you a person,” said Hon. David Eggen, Minister of Education.

“At the same time it's a chance to move positively into the future. You can't move positively into the future until you know your past.”

Another residential school survivor, Métis Elder Terry Lusty recited a poem he wrote as part of a book of poetry about his experiences. He also noted the children in the audience and cited the importance of a proper education.

“When I was in residential schools for eight years, one of the things we faced very seriously was a lack of proper education. You children are so fortunate in the world we live in today, with the subject areas you are able to take in school and learn and grow from, things that will prepare you for your future because you are leaders of tomorrow.”

Lusty is a well-known writer, teacher and photographer. An exhibit of his photographs dealing with reconciliation was at City Hall for Orange Shirt Day. In a very emotional moment, he made a special presentation to Gisele Wood, the widow of Elder Jerry Wood, who passed away last year. Wood was the Elder in Residence with Edmonton Catholic Schools.

The event also featured a drum circle, dance performances by students from Edmonton Public, and a song in Cree from students at Enoch.

Orange Shirt Day started in Williams Lake, B.C. in 2013 as a way of remembering the victims and impact of residential schools. The event gets its name from a story about a six-year-old girl who was a student at the St. Joseph Mission. On her first day of school, she had her new, beloved orange shirt taken away from her.

In Edmonton, the event was organized by the Society for Safe and Caring Schools and Communities, a non-profit that seeks to improve the quality of Life for All Alberta children in such ways as addressing issues of bullying and violence.

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