A tear falls down Eddy Charlie’s cheek as he watches drumming, singing and a tiny child perform among other traditional dancers in Victoria’s Centennial Square.
“Culture is coming back to these lands,” said Charlie, a survivor of the Kuper Island Residential School who founded Victoria’s Orange Shirt Day with Kristin Spray.
The capital city hosted the Xe Xe Smun’ Eem Orange Shirt Day: Every Child Matters ceremony on Friday (Sept. 30) – the second National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
Xe Xe Smun’ Eem means “Sacred Children” in the Cowichan or Quw utsun language and Friday’s gathering looked to raise awareness about residential schools, honour the more than 6,000 children who died and the sacrifices made by 150,000 residential school survivors and their families.
Tsartlip Nation Elder May Sam began the ceremony with a blessing.
“My prayers to the family of the children that never came back home,” the St. Catherine’s Indian Day School survivor told a crowd of hundreds.
As thousands of unmarked graves are uncovered at former residential school sites, Charlie said Orange Shirt Day is a chance to continue telling the truth about the horrors in the institutions, so people across the country can understand the irreparable harm they caused.
He spoke of children robbed of the only language they ever knew as they were beaten for using a single word of it.
“Your language connects you to culture, connects you to tradition, but more importantly it connects you to your family and residential schools took that away from us.”
Sad eyes spanned the crowd but stayed focused on Charlie’s every word on Friday. He said the heavy truths are hard to carry when they involve children being forcibly taken from their families and being starved or sexually abused at the residential schools.
Charlie told a story of an elder who every day would ask a young boy to tell her about a cut on his knee, and every day he would cry – until after months, he finally didn’t.
“The reason is because the more you tell your story of your pain and your trauma, the easier it becomes for you to allow yourself to heal,” he said. “I am grateful that we are given this platform to carry this message to each one of you and hopefully all of Canada.”
Ry Moran, who served with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, said September is hard for survivors as it’s a reminder of when children would be ripped away and playgrounds in communities would become empty.
Residential schools weren’t discussed in any school curriculum until a decade ago because the government deliberately suppressed the truths of Indigenous Peoples, Moran said. Port Alberni survivors were called liars when they were some of the first ones to speak of the abuse they faced, he said.
“The findings of unmarked graves verify what survivors have been telling us all along, that children entered those schools and did not come out,” Moran said.
“Despite this history, what is abundantly clear is that it did not work and survivors and nations have overcome the profound injustice, and as we gather in places like this, we as Canadians are reminded that our responsibility is to now become part of this work of healing.”
Murray Rankin, minister of Indigenous relations and reconciliation, announced that B.C. officially proclaimed Sept. 30 as Orange Shirt Day to acknowledge the harmful legacy of the institutions, how the colonial system’s impact and the loss of life is still felt today and to increase understanding.
“Residential schools is not simply a part of our past, the reality of intergenerational trauma caused by the residential school system continues to this day,” he said. “(This) day reminds us of our obligation to deepen our understanding of Canada’s colonial history and its effect, its systemic impact on Metis, Inuit and First Nations people.”
Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps thanked Charlie for his continued courage and said his voice gets stronger every year. She said the community holds the pain of survivors with them and will be there to listen with open hearts to continue the process of healing.
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