The trees are in the shape of an arbour over the road. As I drove down this road, I pictured myself as a young girl being taken to a residential school, like thousands of young Indigenous children did. The road comes to an end and a beautiful school presents itself. The building stands on the location of where the last residential school in Canada stood before it closed. The heaviness hung over me as I looked at my orange shirt and remembered why I was there.
Upon the arrival at residential school in 1973, six-year-old Phyllis Jack Webstad had her orange shirt taken from her. The story of her first day of school is what brought Orange Shirt Day to life in 2013. Sept. 30 symbolizes the approximate day children were taken from their homes.
Students from kindergarten to Grade 8 at George Gordon Education Center, about 30 kilometres southeast of Raymore, have taught the significance of this day and what residential school was. Mary McNab, who attended Muskowekwan residential school from 1959 to 1967 in Lestock, spoke to the children throughout this year’s Orange Shirt Day.
“I think it’s important to know what their grandparents and their great grandparents went through to get an education,” said McNab.
McNab explained what was written in the treaties and what our ancestors wanted in return for sharing the land. Book learning was a big part and education was a requirement so Indigenous people could work with the settlers. This was supposed to be the plan, but the government took a different route and brought in residential schools to assimilate children.
Mahlea Hunter is in Grade 8. As she grew older she heard of residential schools and what they were. She has the understanding that children were taken from their homes and were moved into the school; she said her deceased Kohkum (means Grandmother in Cree) attended and has told her about it.
Like many students today who will be growing into a young adult, Hunter will understand even more the importance of the history with residential schools and why they need to be talked about.
“[I think it’s important] for the children who went there, and the survivors,” said Hunter.
The traumatic events of residential school involved all sorts of abuse and neglect from the staff, and students would live with this until they were able to speak about it. Some never could. This is where students earned the title of survivors because thousands did not live to see the end of this era.
“My dad and them lived a hop, skip and jump away from the residence but we had to stay there,” said McNab.
“And I know there were some things that went [on] in there that weren’t right, you know, as an eight-year-old kid.”
Post-traumatic stress disorder was huge with students who attended residential schools, drug and alcohol abuse were tremendously high due to the experiences some had.
The fact students did not know how to show affection because they were not shown any, or the sexual confusion due to the trauma, led to intergenerational trauma in the generations that came after. Although the hurt was so heavy, there were some that fought through and made sure their offspring felt loved and safe.
“My dad and mom were hard working people all their lives,” said McNab.
“My grandparents were hardworking. And alcohol was never, ever in my family.”
George Gordon residential school closed in 1996, it was the last one open in Canada. Tammy McNab, the Principal of the Education Center, expressed her gratitude to the Horizon School Division for their understanding in the importance of Orange Shirt Day.
Although Tammy McNab did not attend residential school, she sees the intergenerational trauma that comes from it, especially being right there in the nearby reserve.
“It’s important that we have these kind of events held in our school and resource people that are local to our community [and] that have lived it, and that can come into our classrooms and speak to our children on these topics,” said Tammy McNab.
“It’s very hard to teach these issues to our children without them knowing the actual history of what went on at the school.”
Tammy McNab says it is important for the students to understand the history of residential school, especially because where the school is located, is where the George Gordon residential school stood as well. The building is no longer there, but the acknowledgement of the huge impact it still has on their families and community is crucial to know.
“Someday I’ll write it down or tell someone about it,” said Mary McNab, “But that’s just the way life was back then.”