Hundreds of students from across the Cariboo-Chilcotin gathered in Williams Lake’s Boitanio Park to celebrate Orange Shirt Day Wednesday morning.
Started five years ago by Cariboo-Chilcotin School District No.27 as a part of a reconciliation mandate, Orange Shirt Day has exploded in popularity across the country. Now celebrated across B.C and Canada, it is one of two days Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet is considering to make a statutory holiday, in honour of Indigenous people.
Gathered together in what Superintendent Mark Wintjes described as “a sea of orange” students from Kindergarten to Grade 12 came together with members of the community, including several residential school survivors, to mark this special day. Featuring speakers such as MLA Donna Barnett, Williams Lake Mayor Walt Cobb and Esk’etemc Chief Fred Robbins, the event gave survivors a voice and a path forward together.
After many moving and heartfelt speeches, the event concluded with an enthusiastic and passionate drum circle led by Mike Retasket, a culture consultant for Aboriginal Affects Consulting, which involved the entire gathering. With Retasket and students wielding drums setting the beat, a sonorous and powerful tune was carried back and forth by the crowd, filling the park with life.
The event’s master of ceremonies, Jerome Beauchamp, said that it was awesome to see so many people come out to the event.
“It was a great crowd again, we always get lots of children here in Williams Lake, so we’re just trying to gear the event towards having a part for them within it,” Beauchamp said.
The speakers at the event were picked specifically to represent all of Williams Lake, according to Beauchamp. Orange Shirt Day is about remembering and raising awareness about residential schools, both among the First Nations and non-First Nations communities.
“There are two parts to Orange Shirt Day. One part is about reconciliation and raising awareness about what happened in residential schools but the other part is that every child matters,” Beauchamp explained. “The children that were in residential schools are now adults, they’ve gone through all of that trauma but how can we make sure that kids matter all the way into the future is the second part of today: thinking about the past but also trying to work ourselves into the future.”
The greatest moment of the event for Beauchamp was the drumming at the end. He said it was fantastic to see so many students bring their drums, as well as have adults emerge from the crowd with their own drums ready in hand, something that wasn’t planned or expected.
“So just having all of those people drumming together and the whole crowd of 1,000 people singing together was really cool,” Beauchamp said.
Superintendent Wintjes was also proud of the turnout by both students and classroom teachers. He hopes that this level of engagement among teachers and their classes continues to spread from year to year, as the district has seen since the event’s inception.
“We still need to show our respect and wear our orange shirts on Sept. 30,” Wintjes said.
The residential school near Williams Lake, St. Joseph’s Mission, closed its doors in 1981. However, its lasting legacy continues to be felt today.