SASKATOON — Sept. 30th was the annual Orange Shirt Day — a day when Canadians remember the residential schools and acknowledge the inter-generational trauma that has stemmed from them. It is also a day of affirmation. On Sept. 28 the City of Saskatoon, in collaboration with Reconciliation Saskatoon and the Office of the Treaty Commissioner, hosted a public event at the Frances Morrison Library.
Annie Battiste, Indigenous Relations director for Big Brothers Big Sisters and a member of the Speakers Bureau for the Office of the Treaty Commissioner, hosted a panel in which stories of residential school survival were shared.
According to Battiste, there are two reasons we wear orange shirts on Sept. 30th: “The first is that autumn, when the season changes, is the time of year that many of our children and youth were taken away to residential school. So it is often a sad time for survivors.”
The second reason revolves around the story of Phyllis (Jack) Webstad. As a young girl, Webstad, received a new orange shirt from her grandmother in anticipation of attending the mission school. Her excitement quickly dissipated as she was stripped upon arrival and her orange shirt taken away. Phyllis’s story, and the image of the shirt, is a catalyst for conversation as part of the journey toward reconciliation and healing.
“We can be aware of the past, we can be aware of the story, and we can acknowledge the harm of residential schools by wearing our orange shirts,” said Battiste. “More specifically, the City of Saskatoon and Reconciliation Saskatoon have been going through a process of internalizing and making actionable the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action.”
Call to Action no. 80 speaks to the establishment, “as a statutory holiday, of a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation to honour survivors, their families and communities, and ensure that the public commemoration of the legacy of residential schools remains a vital component of the reconciliation process.”
Among the panelists at the event to share their stories was Elder Frank Badger, a survivor of St. Michael’s Indian Residential School in Duck Lake, Sask. Badger described how he was sent to residential school for 10 years, beginning at the age of six.
“They squeezed 40 or 50 of us into a cattle truck and hauled us off,” he remembered.
Once they arrived at the school, boys and girls were separated.
“One after the other, we got a buzz cut. They had powder that they put over our bodies and then they threw us in the showers. I’m still haunted by the cries of some of the younger students who wanted to go home.”
He went on to describe the abuse he suffered: “I went through a lot of strappings, a lot of physical and sexual abuse.” He was beaten for speaking in Cree. “I lost my pride, I lost my dignity and my identity. I was taught how to love God, but I was also taught how to hate myself because I was Indian.”
Badger spoke of his later experiences with alcoholism and the criminal justice system: “There wasn’t a lot difference between jail and residential school, but at least in jail you didn’t get slapped for speaking Cree.”
He also spoke of the residual impact of residential schools on family members: “Residential schools not only affected the individual but the communities as well. In residential school, a hurt child goes home and hurts other people. A lot of residential school survivors still have a hard time saying ‘I love you’ to their children.”
Panelist Janice Linklater also spoke about her experiences with inter-generational trauma and growing up in a home that had been affected by the residential school legacy. Both her parents were survivors. Linklater spoke about how her mother kept her hair cut short. When examining pictures of her grandmother at residential school and comparing them with her own pictures, she noticed how her haircut as a child mirrored the haircut not only of her grandmother, but of all the children at residential school. “Our hair was exactly the same,” she said.
Linklater also related how her father suffered from alcoholism and a gambling addiction after his residential school experience: “I grew up with violence and addiction and at the age of 13, I too started to drink. For 20 years I drank. I made a lot of mistakes and I wasn’t the best mother.”
Since then, Linklater has worked toward sobriety and trauma recovery. “I did a lot of work on myself,” she said, crediting a return to traditional practices as a source of support and healing. “I went to the ceremonies, I went to the sweat lodges, I talked to the elders and I went to the healing circles. My life started to fall into place.”
Linklater has learned a lot about inter-generational trauma and the impact of residential schools on indigenous families. This awareness, she says, “has made my life richer, and it’s made my relationships happier. I try, now, to live the teachings and lead with my heart — to make my parents, grandparents and ancestors proud.”