Grant Gustafson wants to support the message of Orange Shirt Day, but not just on Sept. 30.
As the district principal for Indigenous education in School District 27, he recognizes the message is one which needs more than one day to be properly acknowledged.
“The school role is not one day, it’s all year,” explained Gustafson, emphasizing the focus should be on the stories of survivors and elders in order to facilitate sharing and healing.
He believes his role is in providing support and tools for schools to take ownership of the Orange Shirt Day message of truth and reconciliation.
But with a school district which includes around 4,600 students across 22 schools in an area as large as the province of New Brunswick, he has his work cut out for him.
“It’s about building relationships between the district, the schools, and our community partners,” he said.
In past years, the school district has brought students across the area together in Boitanio Park in Williams Lake for ceremony and celebration, creating a sea of orange.
This year, because the day is now a statutory holiday, schools will be doing Orange Shirt Day events the day before the holiday and the approach will be more independent.
“The schools are taking ownership of it,” said Gustafson, noting some schools will be participating in the online Truth and Reconciliation workshops, some will be hosting assemblies and ceremonies, and some will have elders speak.
The different approaches will be tailored for different ages and levels across the district.
The district has also purchased orange shirts for each student, teacher and staff.
Gustafson himself does have some Indigenous heritage as well, but it wasn’t something he knew a lot about growing up. His great great grandmother was the daughter of a hereditary chief in the Chemainus area.
He became curious about this aspect of his background while he was living and working in Haida Gwaii as a second-year teacher.
He had moved to the area when his partner Andrea, now his wife, got a job there as a dental hygienist.
The pair enjoyed their time on Haida Gwaii but always knew they would come back to Williams Lake to raise their family.
“It’s such a beautiful area.”
Gustafson said the area offers the kind of resources the couple wanted to have when raising their family.
After he returned to the Cariboo-Chilcotin, he first was teaching at Alexis Creek and then worked all over the district, including time at Horsefly, Nesika, Williams Lake Secondary School - Columneetza campus, 150 Mile House, Likely and Williams Lake Secondary School - Williams Lake campus. Sixteen years of his career were as a principal prior to his role now as the district principal for Indigenous education.
An avid hockey and soccer coach in the community, Gustafson’s children Alexee and Grady have followed in their parents’ athletic footsteps.
Gustafson said he has known since he was in Grade 6 that he wanted to go into education.
While he was growing up he said he was a fairly proud Canadian, but as more information was brought forward about residential schools and then the 215 possible unmarked graves near the residential school near Kamloops, it tarnished the image he had of the country.
He knew he wanted to help with the work of reconciliation where he could and a speaker said the phrase “if not us, then who, and if not now, then when?” which struck a chord.
Shortly after, he saw the posting for the role of district principal for Indigenous education come up and he just felt it was the time to take on the challenging role.