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.”