It was Orange Shirt Day yesterday and I had words with someone I care about. I choose to see the words and ideas that came tumbling out, so different from my own, instead as, help me understand.
Last night I tried to sleep with this all spinning inside of me. And because writing is what I do when I need to say something, I wrote this down.
I was a year younger than Phyllis Jack Webstad, the woman responsible for Orange Shirt Day. I’ve never met Phyllis but I see that in September of 1973 we both went to school for the first time. I went to Austin Road Elementary School in Prince George, BC and Phyllis went to the residential school in Williams Lake, BC, a few hundred kilometers away, wearing her new orange shirt.
Orange must have been the thing that year. My mother made me a dress with knitted orange sleeves, which was kind of itchy because it was wool, but she’d knitted the sleeves herself. If you read Phyllis’s story you will know how excited she was to choose such a beautiful shirt to wear to school, and how her grandmother had managed to scrape enough money together to take her shopping to buy her such a treasure to wear to her first day of school.
When Phyllis went to the Residential School that day with her orange shirt, she did not know that they would strip her of her clothes and take the orange shirt away. And never give it back.
I went to school with my dress with the orange sleeves and all the teachers asked if my mother had made my dress and they smiled in a way that I knew meant they thought my mother was lovely for making that dress with the orange sleeves.
I remembered that dress yesterday for the first time in decades, I’m sure. I’d thought about the colour orange yesterday as the people gathered proudly in the park wearing their orange. Once I realized that Phyllis was about my age, I wondered if I’d had an orange shirt back then, too.
And then I remembered the dress. I knew I had a photo of me wearing it but I wasn’t sure where in the last few decades years it had gone.
Last night I couldn’t fall asleep, and I could feel that photo calling me. So down I went to the crawl space and searched until I found it.
And there I was with my knitted orange sleeves.
But what caught my breath was the doll in my arms – a indigenous doll which I called an “Indian Girl” back then. My mother’s niece and her husband, who was a kind indigenous man, had come to visit in 1973, not long before this photo was taken. They brought me this doll. Which I loved. They were in their twenties, kids of the 60s, wearing long flowy skirts, smelling of patchouli perfume, talking about freedom and responsibility and lives mattering. It was a little edgy in my house to have such a doll, but I loved it anyway. I think I may have packed that doll around day in and day out specifically because it stirred the place up.
I was going through an edgy stage. As you can see, I’d given myself a haircut the day before, which you will note is not too bad for a five-year-old standing on the bathroom counter with the door locked. My mother almost fainted when I came out. I remember that feeling as clearly as if it was yesterday, the doll and the stir it caused, the hippie visitors from away, the cutting off of my own hair, the stir that was in the air in 1973, the beginnings of my sense of self, separate from my parents.
But here’s the part that matters. When I got home from school that day, I was still wearing my orange sleeved dress, hand knit by mother, carrying my doll up to my room in our beautiful house that looked out over the mountains. I had a lot of clothes in my closet, pretty Raggedy Anne wallpaper and a matching bedspread. We had a piano and Sunday dinners and two televisions. We had a pool table and a formal entrance. We had china and a chandelier.
I didn’t know then that not far away from me, Phyllis and other indigenous children like her were living in trauma, poverty and addiction because of what Canadians had done and had put their families through. The story that was alive in my world, school and home was a very different one. (Forgive my use of the word Indian. I have chosen to use it because it positions this writing in time, which I think matters. If you are reading this and you do not know how to properly refer to the Indigenous People of Canada, you can use the word “indigenous” as a general term or one of the three identifying titles for the three distinct Indigenous peoples of Canada: First Nations, Inuit and Metis.)
The old story of my childhood – told in simple enough terms – went something like this:
The explorers found a new land which had plenty of room for everyone. They made friends with the Indians and agreed to live together in this amazing country. They gave the Indians places to live and money so they could buy food and look after their families. Before the government helped them the Indians had no money. They built schools to teach their children to read and write so they could have jobs when they grew up. And they brought Jesus to the families so they could be saved. And alcohol, which was not a good idea because Indians could not drink alcohol very well, so they became addicted. But they should have learned to control themselves.
Here’s what I learned – in simple enough terms – when I got older:
The explorers could see that this country was rich with resources, and they could take it for themselves. There were Indians but they would get rid of them as best they could. It would take a while. After the wars and diseases had not killed the Indians out, they had to round them up and put them somewhere to at least contain them. They made Reservations – which were kind of like game parks only small – and told them to get inside. The Indians were upset and angry and sad. They told the Canadians they couldn’t survive there without being able to hunt and gather and fish, living their lives the way they had for thousands of years. The Canadians said don’t bother, you stay home and watch TV instead and we’ll give you a bit of money for food. And we can sell you booze, which we know works well to numb what you’re going to go through. Sit down on the couch and relax for the rest of your lives. Cause there’s no way out of here, gang.
The Canadians were pretty clued in by now… this wasn’t going to be easy – the surviving Indians were resilient. Hmmm, they thought, if we can keep the parents at home on the couch and start with their kids, we can erase this Indian nonsense. We can turn them into the servants and labourers we need, like we did with the Africans. They need a bit of education to fit in, enough to read menus and count up hay bales, and they need to stop thinking of themselves as Indians so all this cultural nonsense disappears.
Then, they thought, it’s not just education they need, that won’t quite do it.
They need something else. Something more powerful.
Yes, they need to feel shame.
We need them to be ashamed of their parents and of themselves and of their culture. It’s the only way to completely take over.
We need them to be servants, so they need to be compliant and grateful.
Shame. Yes. That’s the magic. We need to shame them.
And so, they built schools and took the children. The children would learn from day one that it was shameful to be an Indian. It was shameful to speak their language and to love the way their parents had lived and their lives back home.
This would be the most important lesson in Residential Schools.
Yes, they would also learn to read, but the real lesson was to be ashamed of themselves. Once this was accomplished, they would be fit to work in the households and the fields and serve at tables just like the Africans had learned to do in England.
The Canadians who came later would also learn to feel disgust and judgement towards indigenous peoples , they would help to continue the shame. Shame would go on through all of Canadian society for many, many years. It was a masterful plan.
More Information When You Need to Understand
You can find information about this in many places online via Google or you can use this link: https://www.facinghistory.org/stolen-lives-indigenous-peoples-canada-and-indian-residential-schools/historical-background/who-are-indigenous-peoples-canada
I will tell you upfront that the link I have provided has a strong point of view in seeking to represent the historical background in a particular way. All sources of history, however, come with bias. This is the nature of history: the story comes out differently depending on who is telling it. I am providing this link because this is the perspective that was missing from my childhood. The other perspective had been communicated loudly and clearly already. I have included the missing one instead.
For those of you who won’t bother going to the link I’m including a few bits and pieces anyway.
When you read these sections, please know that the word assimilate means: to become like us, to fit in with the society we are building here on the land we took. Assimilate is not let’s find a good blend of it all, assimilate means you stop being you so you can become who we need you to be.
“As Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald said in 1887, after the residential schools began to operate, “The great aim of our legislation has been to do away with the tribal system and assimilate the Indian people in all respects with the other inhabitants of the Dominion as speedily as they are fit to change.” Yet despite this high talk of Indian enfranchisement, the official process designed to assimilate indigenous people as soon as possible, Indigenous Peoples in Canada could not vote until the 1960s.”
“After Indians were no longer useful for economic or military purposes, the government established a system of reserves designed to “protect and civilize” native people in order that they might eventually assimilate. The policy was to settle the Indians on the land and, over time, develop them into “productive citizens.” In theory, Indians were to learn to exercise [individual] self-determination and assume responsibilities for their own affairs. Missionaries, educators, Indian agents, judges, and police were sent to the reserves to facilitate the transition from savagery to civilization. The Indians themselves had little to say about the process because there was no political structure within which they could operate effectively.”
“Because of his radical position, it is easy to understand why he – Scott – is often associated with the saying “Kill the Indian, save the man.” In the discussion about whether the Canadian assimilation policies and the Indian Residential Schools constitute, this approach is often key evidence. Scott summarized the prevailing attitudes of Canadian officials: the First Peoples, despite many agreements with the Crown that guaranteed their independence, were to be eradicated as distinct nations and cultures.” (*eradicated means wiped out)
“While Scott did not think that education alone was sufficient for civilizing the Indigenous Peoples of Canada, he pushed heavily for it. When he mandated school attendance in 1920, he stated, “I want to get rid of the Indian problem. I do not think as a matter of fact, that the country ought to continuously protect a class of people who are able to stand alone…Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department, that is the whole object of this Bill.” (Here’s how to read this: We need to get rid of the Indian problem. We need this problem to go away.)
And while the most significant damage of the Residential schools was in shaming the children about being Indians, the day to day life was pretty terrible, too:
“That night, just before she turned the lights off, Sister Maura taught us how to pray on our knees with our hands folded. Then she told us about devils. She said they were waiting with chains under our beds to drag us into the fires of hell if we got up and left our beds during the night. When she turned the lights off I was scared to move, even to breathe. I knew those devils would come and get me if I made a sound. I kept really still. . . . Someone was crying. A long time later, I was still afraid to get up and use the bathroom. In the morning my bed was wet and Sister Superior strapped me. I had to wear a sign . . . saying, I was a dirty wetbed.”
“Such strict discipline, which was often just another name for abuse, added to the isolation and separation students felt once they were severed from their families. Many students reported a loveless childhood, coupled with humiliation and degradation by school staff. Hunger, poor nutrition, and repetitive food items were common complaints. As one student remembered: “I was always hungry. . . . At school, it was porridge, porridge, porridge, and if it wasn’t that, it was boiled barley or beans, and thick slices of bread spread with lard. Weeks went by without the taste of meat or fish. Such things as sugar or butter or jam only appeared on our tables on feast days, and sometimes not even then . . . I believe I was hungry for all seven of the years I was at school.”
Over and above the daily sufferings, the schools proved to be a breeding ground for all manner of sadistic verbal, physical, and sexual abuses. Poorly supervised priests, nuns, and laymen often used their positions of power to carry out assaults on the bodies of defenseless children. These experiences had many detrimental effects for the students who attended the schools. They continue to torment not only the former residential school students themselves but also their families and communities.”
A Poem for the Day After Orange Shirt Day
We didn’t do anything
To the Natives.
It was long before us.
I don’t know what
All this fuss is about.
I lie down in the forest
Wearing the dress my mother made,
With the knitted orange sleeves.
There are two hummingbirds buzzing above me
They land on my wrists and pick at the wool
Of my orange sleeves
Until it releases.
They fly away with it in their beaks
Unravelling stitch by stitch
What my mother has knit together.
She’s going to be mad,
I think to myself.
But I let them go.
They fly through the forest
Back through time
Past the Indian children
Hungry, afraid, and ashamed.
Trapped at the residential schools.
They fly past the grandparents and the parents
Being taken to the reservation
Which is the small piece of land
They were allowed to keep.
Their new spot
Means they cannot live
Like they have for thousands of years,
Hunting and fishing, gathering.
Young men suddenly so old.
But we will get a Walmart someday
And a McDonald’s and a Tim Horton’s
If all goes as planned.
The hummingbirds fly
Past the tribes of people
Dying of diseases brought here from over there.
They fly to that moment
When the railway was finished,
The last spike, over the Rockies,
Which meant there was no stopping
The takeover now.
Soon machines would come and dig the place up.
Knock down the trees
And pour chemicals into the water.
The hummingbirds land there
On the metal tie
At the end of the railway
With the orange wool from my sleeves in their beaks.
I think they are asleep at first.
But they have died.
And the wool from my orange sleeves
Has reached the end.
My mother is going to be mad
When she sees
How far it actually reaches.