Agassiz Harrison students honour residential school survivors with Orange Shirt Day

Seabird, Sts’ailes, Kent, Harrison students come to school in orange shirts

As residential school survivor Thelma Florence told her story to a gymnasium full of Kent Elementary School students on Monday, the students listened carefully, at least for the first few minutes.

As the Chawathil woman’s story went on, the students squirmed and chatted, not because they didn’t care, but because they’re children – too young to focus or fully grasp the gravity of Florence’s words – making her story, of being removed from her family and taken to the Mission-based St. Mary’s Residential School in grade 3, even more powerful.

“At the school, we weren’t allowed to talk our language, we weren’t allowed to talk to our siblings,” said Florence, whose brother also attended the school and managed to safely escape and make the journey from Mission to Hope – back to their family. “I was lonely, I missed home. I cried in my room, I cried for home,” she told the assembly, resting her hands, with orange-painted-fingernails, in her lap.

“We were verbally abused, sexually abused and physically abused,” Florence continued. “No one heard us. We didn’t think anyone would believe us. That’s why we don’t speak out today. We learned to hold it in.”

Today, Florence said she is healing by talking about her experience, but acknowledged that many survivors can’t, or don’t want to relive the trauma.

“Sometimes I cry about it, sometimes I’m okay about it. I choose to be able to talk about. A lot of survivors don’t…and that’s their choice.”

Orange Shirt Day is a BC-initiated project that commemorates the residential school experience by witnessing and honouring the healing journey of survivors and their families and continuing the process of reconciliation.

The official date – Sept. 30 – was chosen to coincide with the time children were taken from their homes and put into residential schools. The hue of the shirts worn by participants, a bright, unmistakable orange, comes from the story of residential school survivor Phyllis (Jack) Webstead. Webstead wore an orange shirt, gifted to her from her grandmother, to her first day of residential school when she was six-years-old. The shirt was taken from her upon arrival.

Seabird Island Community School’s language curriculum developer Dianna Kay compiled a teacher’s resource for Orange Shirt Day where she states: “Wearing orange shirts recognizes the many losses experienced by students and their families and communities, over several generations including: loss of family and culture, language, freedom, parenting, self-esteem and worth and painful experiences of abuse and neglect.”


Kent Elementary School students posed in their orange shirts following an assembly to help them learn the meaning behind Orange Shirt Day. (Nina Grossman/The Observer)

The drumming song performed at Kent Elementary was meant to act as a medicine, sending healing to residential school survivors. (Nina Grossman/The Observer)

Thelma Florence of Chawathil First Nation sits next to Kent Elementary principal Stan Watchorn as she tells the story of her time in St. Mary’s Residential School. (Nina Grossman/The Observer)

Agassiz Elementary Secondary School students wore orange shirts too.

Seabird Island Community School’s language curriculum developer Dianna Kay said at this year’s Orange Shirt Day, teachers were given resources to support student learning, plus given a professional development on the Project of Hearts. “We focus on “thriving” and becoming the best people we possibly can, as first, second and some third generation “thrivers”, we encouraged the children to be kind to themselves, to others and to their environment,” she told the Observer via email. (Submitted/Dianna Kay)

Sts’ailes Community School students wrote ‘what or who’ mattered to them on orange paper t-shirts. (Submitted/Pat Kohut)

Agassiz Christian School students wore their brightest orange shirts for the occasion. (Submitted)

Harrison Hot Springs Elementary School students formed an orange heart in their shirts. (Submitted)

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