Orange Shirt Day and the legacy of colonialism in residential schools
September 29, 2017 1:48 PM   Subscribe

In 1973, at the age of six, Phyllis Webstad was separated from her family and sent to what was called "Indian residential school." There, the new orange shirt her grandmother had saved up to buy her was stripped off her body and never returned. Today is Orange Shirt Day in Canada, when First Nations, Inuit and Metis people and their allies put on orange shirts to honour residential school survivors and to remember those who did not survive. You can read Phyllis' complete story here and learn why, for her, the colour orange is an important symbol for her experience in residential school: "The color orange has always reminded me of that [first day] and how my feelings didn’t matter, how no one cared and how I felt like I was worth nothing. All of us little children were crying and no one cared."

The term residential schools refers to an extensive school system set up by the Canadian government and administered by churches that had the nominal objective of educating Aboriginal children but also the more damaging and equally explicit objectives of indoctrinating them into Euro-Canadian and Christian ways of living and assimilating them into mainstream Canadian society. The residential school system operated from the 1880s into the closing decades of the 20th century. The system forcibly separated children from their families for extended periods of time and forbade them to acknowledge their Aboriginal heritage and culture or to speak their own languages. Children were severely punished if these, among other, strict rules were broken. Former students of residential schools have spoken of horrendous abuse at the hands of residential school staff: physical, sexual, emotional, and psychological. Residential schools provided Aboriginal students with an inferior education, often only up to grade five, that focused on training students for manual labour in agriculture, light industry such as woodworking, and domestic work such as laundry work and sewing. (Erin Hansen, Indigenous Foundations, University of British Columbia)

Recent evidence discovered about medical experimentation on children in residential schools.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission Findings

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report previously on MetaFilter
posted by hurdy gurdy girl (10 comments total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
Oh, good God. I have some knowledge about residential schools and their horrors, but 1973?! I have sisters her age. Evil, just evil. Thank you so much for your post.
posted by epj at 2:51 PM on September 29, 2017 [5 favorites]

In fact, the last residential school in Canada closed in 1996.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 3:10 PM on September 29, 2017 [19 favorites]

Thanks so much for this post.
posted by allthinky at 3:28 PM on September 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

I currently have two students who attended residential school in the 1970s, and many more whose parents and grandparents attended residential school. When we talk about it in my classes, I usually ask students if they know when the last residential school closed, and almost no one knows that it's 1996.

We had events to mark Orange Shirt Day today (many people were wearing orange shirts), and there were quite a few survivors who attended, including some who teach here. It was really something to hear them open up about their experiences. It's horrific to think that well within my lifetime, society and government actually thought it was perfectly OK to take children from their families like this.

When I hear people talk about Indigenous people in derogatory terms, I always counter by asking if they know anything about the residential school system. Most don't and are totally shocked that this was happening within recent memory. If they have kids I ask them to imagine someone coming to their door and taking their five year old away, not to return until months or maybe years later, and completely out of communication with them in the meantime. Or if they don't have kids, to imagine themselves being taken from their parents at five years of age. The separation alone would be enough to traumatize someone for life, never mind the physical and sexual abuse and its effects.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 3:40 PM on September 29, 2017 [12 favorites]

medical experimentation on children in residential schools.

I like to think that I'm well informed about the genocidal practices Canada has employed since Confederation, but every time - every time I look I find some fresh horror.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 3:41 PM on September 29, 2017 [4 favorites]

every time I look I find some fresh horror.

I try not to look. That puts me in an awkward place since it's also my duty to remember what my tribal ancestors, hell my great grandfather even (among others), experienced lest it be forgotten in all but the text books and dissertations of scholars. Looking and seeing the spectrum of abuse, from straight up Trail of Tears genocide to casual calculated viciousness like this, makes one's view of humanity rather dim. Would Mr. Rodgers find his legendary 'helpers' here if he looked for them? I hope yes, but I know that's a bullshit answer for a community fucked so hard and often by the system like this.

Thanks for posting, you'll have to forgive me if I didn't read the links.
posted by RolandOfEld at 4:47 PM on September 29, 2017 [8 favorites]

My grandmother and at least three of her brothers were residential school survivors. I don't know how many of her other siblings were taken to school, or if any of them didn't make it back. I know that my great-grandmother had eighteen children and that only six of them seem to have lived to adulthood. This wasn't something we talked about in our family. Until I was a teenager, I didn't even know how widespread the residential school system was and had somehow gotten the idea that my grandmother had been sent to a juvenile detention centre as a kid - something I couldn't get my head around.

I know that she only attended classes until the end of Grade 5, at which point the school "kindly" arranged for her to start working as a house cleaner. I know that one of my great-uncles got sent home one summer with a serious brain injury and no explanation. He was never able to work or play any card game more complicated than high-low, molested all the kids in the family, and lived with my grandparents until he was finally old enough to go into a seniors' assisted living facility.

My grandmother moved to another town when she was fourteen and for the rest of her life wouldn't admit to being anything other than "dark French" to anyone outside the family. She married a white man and tried to keep her kids inside in the summer because she was terrified they'd be taken away if they got too brown. I remember her trying the same thing with me when I was little and me laughing at how silly she was, convinced she was trying to pull some boogeyman story on me. I think I might have made her cry by laughing; I remember my mom yelling at me.

She told me once that when she was a little girl at school, she would steal raw potatoes and hide them under her pillow to eat in the middle of the night. She grew up to be an amazing cook whose pies were sold at the local grocery store, and she would get up from the table without a word to start making you your favourite snack if you ever passed on a dish, because nothing upset her as much as seeing one of the kids in the family not happily eating their fill.

I can't even imagine how much fear and shame my grandmother lived with. I'm amazed at the strength of the communities filled with people who had the same thing done to them, communities that are still here despite every effort to kill them, communities that are healing and thriving and bringing forward the truth that so obviously calls for reconciliation. I'm really glad people are telling their stories. I wish I had been kinder to my grandmother.
posted by haruspicina at 4:53 PM on September 29, 2017 [33 favorites]

RolandofEld and haruspicina, thank you for sharing your families' history. I'm so sorry your relatives have borne the brunt of colonialism--no one should have ever been treated that way.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 9:05 PM on September 29, 2017

There's an odd historical flipside to the meaning of the orange shirt in the US. The boarding schools that stole Native American children from their homes to "kill the Indian and save the man" from the late 1800s to about the 1930s (I think I recall) used to force children into orange clothing so as to see them easily if they escaped -- just as US convicts are today.

I wrote papers on these schools in high school and college and was horrified to learn that schools like them (and worse) had continued in Canada through living memory. I have a friend from a Canadian rez whose dad worked for the school system there. He insisted all of his own kids be homeschooled, because of what he saw. It was years before I realized he might have been reacting to more than just poor-quality instruction.
posted by gusandrews at 10:42 PM on September 29, 2017 [2 favorites]

posted by biggreenplant at 6:07 PM on October 1, 2017

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