Hundreds of school children, their teachers, parents, elders and people from the community gathered in Williams Lake’s Boitanio Park Friday to mark Orange Shirt Day.
Inspired by the personal story of Phyllis Webstad who went to residential school and was stripped of her brand new orange shirt on the first day, Orange Shirt Day acknowledges the impact of residential school on First Nations in Canada and emphasizes that every child matters.
Williams Lake Indian Band councillor Heather McKenzie gave a traditional welcome on behalf of the band.
“I am very honoured to provide a welcoming to each of you,” McKenzie said as she looked out in to the crowd. “The colour is beautiful and matches our autumn. Autumn was a day that made all of our children aware of where they had to be.”
That place was a sad place, she added.
“We ask the Great Spirit every day that he look after those that have been lost to the residential school,” McKenzie said. “Thanks to Phyllis Webstad — she has made Orange Shirt Day a legacy.”
Esket elder Francis Johnson Sr.’s hoop dancing students from Marie Sharpe Elementary School performed two dances.
“We are going to do a four directions healing song for all the residential school survivors,” Johnson said.
Williams Lake Indian Band elder Mary Thomas shared some insights from her experiences as a residential school survivor and the abuses she experienced.
“We lost many many skills,” Thomas told the students. “We lost our culture, our values, our customs and most of all, our language.”
Thomas said when she was speaking with her mother one day, she told her mom that for some reason she was beginning to remember Secwepemctsin words.
“She said, ‘you were fluent up until you were six years old,’”, Thomas said as tears filled her eyes. “I don’t even remember being fluent. I went to residential school, I didn’t even know my name or where I came from.”
Later she learned her name was Mary Thomas, but it was not a name she chose or her parents had chosen.
“Father Thomas gave me that name. Father Thomas named my cousin. He gave us our names, we did not have a choice.”
Before Cheryl Chapman from Xat’sull First Nation and Mike Retasket from Bonaparte First Nation taught everyone two traditional First Nations songs, Chapman said Orange Shirt Day is great because it challenges her.
“I know it is my job to help make our shared future together better,” she said.
Retasket thanked School District 27 for supporting meaningful change by teaching about Canada’s residential school history.
“Thank you also for validating that every child matters,” Retasket said.
Orange Shirt Day has been celebrated in Williams Lake since 2012.
Webstad is in Victoria this week where she has been visiting schools and a college to share her story and participate in the City of Victoria’s Orange Shirt Day celebration on Saturday, Sept. 30 at Centennial Square.