A sea of orange filled Boitanio Park as hundreds of people gathered in Williams Lake Monday morning to mark the first-ever Orange Shirt Day, honouring residential school survivors and those who did not survive.
“There was a photograph of a body builder from Italy wearing an orange shirt today on our Facebook page,” said Phyllis Webstad. She’s the Canoe Creek band member whose story about having her brand new orange shirt taken away when she arrived at the St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School at the age of six years old inspired the creation of Orange Shirt Day.
Standing with her mother, father, grandfather and aunt, Webstad said every child matters, even if they are an adult.
“At the Truth and Reconciliation event in Vancouver I learned reconciliation is not just for First Nations and white people,” Webstad said. “It’s all of Canada, including the Jewish, Japanese and Chinese. We all need to be a part of reconciliation.”
National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo energetically addressed the crowd.
“What’s up people of Orange Shirt Day,” he called out. “Kids, you heard Chief Anne Louie speaking her language. At one time they tried to take the chief’s language away, do you think that’s right?”
Many children and adults answered, “no.”
Atleo said around 50 people, wearing orange shirts with the slogan “Everyone Child Matters,” had a photograph taken in front of the parliament buildings Monday morning.
“Acts of reconciliation can be big and we’re going to be bold in this country,” he said. “It’s going to be about economic justice, it’s going to be about social justice and having our rights implemented.”
Williams Lake Indian Band chief Ann Louie said it is an honour to have so many people respect residential school survivors.
“Many suffer today because of cultural loss of our languages and our practices.”
Any organizations or levels of government working with First Nations need to fully understand the impacts of residential schools, Louie added.
Cariboo Chilcotin MLA Donna Barnett said it was a tough day for many people and encouraged everyone to work together to move forward, respect the past, and make sure, as the T-shirts said, that every child matters.
Mayor Kerry Cook told the crowd she was filled with hope for the future.
“What happened here in May with the St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School commemorative project and the truth and reconciliation hearings was so amazing,” Cook said. “It was powerful, it was difficult, but it started with people feeling comfortable sharing their story. It took a heck of a lot of courage for people to speak the truth of what happened.”
Cariboo Regional District chair Al Richmond emceed the event and said Orange Shirt Day is growing nationally in nature.
Richmond asked for a moment of silence to remember survivors who perished, especially Shadow Hawk, a residential school survivor who recently died.
The school district has made commitments to create curriculum about local residential school history, to invite survivors into the schools to tell stories and to make Orange Shirt Day more than a one day event, said superintendent Mark Thiessen.
“Orange Shirt Day is much more than choosing what piece of wardrobe you wear on Sept. 30. We want to commit to making sure this is an every day occurrence and that we remind ourselves that every child matters.”
School board chair Joyce Cooper, the district’s first-ever First Nations chair said she never guessed she would have the position.
“We’re all survivors,” Cooper said. “I spent seven years in residential school and promised myself I’d make a difference.”
Students travelled from schools throughout the district, even as far as Nemiah and Horsefly to participate.
Young girls Natasha Castro and Meaghan Amos sang two songs and Juno Award winning musician Murray Porter performed a residential school survivor inspired song.