Teaching children about trauma that other youth have had to endure can be complicated. Knowledge is powerful but can also be heavy to bear. This is especially so when the trauma was inflicted upon loved ones. The nine-year-old daughter of a residential school survivor demonstrated at her school this week, that though complicated, education is necessary and can foster empowerment, action and connection.
Haley Paetkau, Grade 4 student at St. Michaels University School, organized Orange Shirt Day on Oct.1, the first one held at the junior school. Paetkau was inspired by seeing her father, Steve Sxwithul’txw of the Penelakut First Nation, sharing stories at the Orange Shirt Day ceremony at Centennial Square in 2017 to help educate about the impacts of residential schools on Indigenous families.
“When I talk about that experience that I went through – not just me, but my sisters and my mom and a bunch of my uncles and aunts – I don’t tell you so that you feel sorry for me. I tell you simply because I want you to know that our people are resilient,” Sxwithul’txw said. “Don’t ever feel sorry for me. I don’t need that. I need your strength in telling this story to the next generation and that’s what she’s doing.”
More than 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children were forced to attend residential schools, and more than 6,000 didn’t survive. There are 80,000 former students alive today.
“It’s important to have Orange Shirt Day to remember residential schools so we don’t treat anyone that way again,” said nine-year-old Paetkau. “I knew we didn’t have Orange Shirt Day at my school and I thought it would be a good idea to celebrate.”
Orange Shirt Day is a legacy of a commemoration event held in 2013 at St. Joseph Mission residential school in Williams Lake, B.C. It grew out of Phyllis Webstad’s story of having her new orange shirt taken away on her first day of school at the Mission when she was stripped of all her clothes and culture, and it has become an opportunity to keep the discussion of residential schools alive annually. The date was chosen because it is the time of year when children were taken from their homes and sent to residential schools.
At SMUS Orange Shirt Day assembly, Paetkau told the story of Phyllis Webstad, and also performed a play with Abigail Porttris, an Indigenous Grade 2 student at SMUS, and Grade 2 teacher Nina Duffus, based on David Robertson’s book, When we were alone, about a grandmother sharing her experience of residential school. Elder Bill White and Wes Edwards opened the event with traditional songs and drumming.
On top of taking part in the assembly, Paetkau sold hundreds of homemade orange bead bracelets to raise money for a First Nations school in need, accumulating $700 which quickly became $1,400 after a commitment by an Indigenous parent at the school to double the funds raised. Paetkau was not alone in making the bracelets – friends, neighbours, family, and classmates joined in the effort and created a “little factory.”
“We taught our class to put their hands up and say Hych’ka Siem,” said Paetkau, thanking those that helped out.
“I am extremely proud of her,” Sxwithul’txw said. “It’s something you share gingerly with your kids. My kids are very small and impressionable but at that stage where they are very curious about their dad’s history. It is really important in terms of our teachings that they are aware of their history. I give them information that promotes thought and encourages them to dig deep and ask those pivotal questions to understand how that shaped our people to where we are today.
“We carry a lot of the scars and whatnot but we are resilient. There is nothing that we can’t do. It doesn’t matter what the obstacles are. We find ways to move above and beyond that. It is about taking action and that’s what I’m trying to instill in my children – to have a voice.”
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