Honouring and remembering the experiences and losses of the thousands of children who were placed in residential schools
Terri Suntjens, director of Indigenous initiatives and kihêw waciston Indigenous Centre, is wearing a shirt designed for Orange Shirt Day by Keely O'Dell, a student at MacEwan.
My Dad is a residential school survivor. He was taken from his parents at a very young age, forced to not speak his language, given a number instead of a name, and experienced abuse. He didn’t have an easy life there. It’s his story and not mine to tell.
Years later, that residential school was taken over by First Nations community members who had our future generations in mind and it is now an Indigenous-owned and -run university where language and ceremony are intertwined in their programs. Many decades later, I started working and taking courses at the very place where my father attended residential school as a child.
I remember standing outside that university when I graduated with my eagle feather and my degree in my hands and thinking, “This is my resistance.” I had connected back to who I am as an Indigenous woman. It was empowering. And I had done what I felt I needed to do to honour my dad.
I have immense gratitude for our ancestors who had us children in mind when they fought for us. So when I reflect on the work I do I remind myself to keep our future generations in mind as well.
My father struggled in residential school because the mandate was to assimilate the First Nations children into western society. Duncan Campbell Scott, previous head of Indian Affairs, once said “I want to get rid of the Indian problem.” As a daughter of a residential school survivor and as a First Nations woman who briefly attended that last open residential school, there is both intergenerational trauma and trauma that comes from the grief and loss that my family has experienced. It’s something that I just buried deep down for years because it was difficult to understand. I couldn’t see that some of the trauma that my father had experienced had affected me. But it did. It was through my connection to ceremony and community that I was able to understand, process and make sense of that intergenerational trauma.
At kihêw waciston, we are finding ways to work more closely with the university’s social work and mental health resources, and offer sessions for students on trauma and grief and loss with elders and knowledge keepers. Trauma is difficult to understand, but so important to talk about.
To learn more about the origin and history of the nationwide event that grew out of Phyllis Webstad's story of having her new orange shirt taken away on her first day of residential school, visit orangeshirtday.org.
Orange t-shirts designed by Keely O'Dell, a first-year Theatre Production student at MacEwan, are available for purchase at kihêw waciston in Room 7-131.
“When I was designing the orange shirts for MacEwan, I was thinking a lot about my grandparents’ experiences—my kokôm and mosôm were both in residential school and it’s something I’ve grown up knowing about. It affected them a lot,” says Keely.
She explains that the circle of sweetgrass in the shirt design represents the idea that healing is a continuous journey.
“My grandparents’ journey of healing continues on from them to us now. It makes me happy that people are finally acknowledging that these things happened and that it wasn’t okay. We can’t forget,” she says.
We acknowledge that the land on which we gather in Treaty Six Territory is the traditional gathering place for many Indigenous people. We honour and respect the history, languages, ceremonies and culture of the First Nations, Métis and Inuit who call this territory home.