Phyllis Webstad holds up the gathering blanket the staff and students of Dog Creek school made and presented to her during Orange Shirt Day.

Phyllis Webstad holds up the gathering blanket the staff and students of Dog Creek school made and presented to her during Orange Shirt Day.

Orange Shirt Day lessons of past in today’s classrooms

Phyllis Webstad, who attended St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School in British Columbia, is credited for creating the movement

By Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press

Projected onto a classroom wall, the aerial view of Wellington Park via Google Maps — a green plot tucked between the Assiniboine River and Academy Road — is easily recognizable to Sara Tham’s students.

They know the site as a toboggan hill, or as a home field for baseball, or as a park they bike past when riding along area trails in the neighbourhood.

It’s an approximately 20-minute walk from their elementary school in River Heights.

The nine- and 10-year-olds aren’t as familiar with the grounds’ history as the site of Assiniboia Indian Residential High School, which operated between 1958 and 1973 as part of the federal government’s educational system built to assimilate Indigenous students and destroy First Nation, Metis and Inuit cultures, languages and identities.

Leading up to Orange Shirt Day, recognized annually Sept. 30, Tham has led activities and discussions with her Grade 4/5 students at Robert H. Smith School about the lesser-known history of the Assiniboia plot and how residential schools operated across the country.

“That way they can make connections to what’s happening in their community and I would hope that then… they might be able to access the knowledge, the stories around residential schools, in a different way that hits a little closer to home,” she said during an interview at the school Tuesday.

It’s not lost on Tham educational resources for Orange Shirt Day highlight the importance of Indigenous connections to the land and place-based learning.

Countrywide, Sept. 30 has become known as the day to wear orange to recognize the harms caused by the residential school system and affirm a commitment to ensure all children’s lives are protected and valued.

Phyllis Webstad, who attended St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School in British Columbia, is credited for creating the movement. The colour is symbolic of the orange shirt her grandmother bought her to go to school when Webstad arrived, she was stripped of all her clothing.

Theodore Fontaine has a similar story — but with a childhood favourite Chicago Blackhawks hockey jersey. The 78-year-old, who attended both Fort Alexander and Assiniboia residential schools in Manitoba, recalls his beloved sweater disappearing when he returned to Fort Alexander after summer break one year.

“At seven years old, when you’re deposited into a big stone building, away from all the love and closeness of a family, that’s the most difficult thing to put a kid through. You’ve lost everything at that point,” said Fontaine, who is Anishinaabe from Sagkeeng First Nation.

In 1920, Canadian bureaucrat Duncan Campbell Scott, who oversaw the expansion of the residential school system in the early 1900s, declared his goal was to “get rid of the Indian problem.”

Students experienced physical, mental, spiritual and sexual abuse at the hands of staff at the government- and church-run schools.

While Fontaine said staff “certainly tried hard to kill the Indian in this little guy,” he considers his experience at Assiniboia to be “like a breath of fresh air” compared to life at Fort Alexander.

Student experiences varied, but many came from schools that were “very violent,” said Andrew Woolford, a professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Manitoba, who has researched the site.

In contrast, Woolford said Assiniboia seemed better — in part, because certain staff members came off as more caring and concerned about student well-being than previous administrators.

“It’s hard to keep these two things in mind: that you could have decent people trying to lessen the violence of it, but it’s still a school within a system of assimilation,” he said.

At Robert H. Smith, that’s a challenge Tham is navigating as she teaches her students about the residential school system.

On Tuesday, she showed her class a CBC news clip about Assiniboia, in which Fontaine is featured. In it, he speaks about the acceptance Indigenous students found at Assiniboia. After the viewing, her students reflected on the different stories they have heard about the schools.

Since the start of September, Tham said she’s been exposing her students to different Indigenous perspectives and experiences. She’s incorporated a book about sharing circles and Indigenous music into her class.

“This year, my hope is that we look at history and we look at what’s happening now, in a way that both recognizes the damages that have been done, the complicated events that have happened, but also celebrating the successes that Indigenous people have had,” she said.

As for Orange Shirt Day, Robert H. Smith School is holding a virtual assembly today. Myra Laramee, an elder at the Winnipeg School Division, is expected to speak.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The Quesnel RCMP Detachment is one of seven northern police buildings which can now connect directly to Prince George for daily bail hearings. (Observer File Photo)
Bail hearings going virtual in B.C.’s north

A court pilot project will see virtual courtroom cameras set up in seven RCMP detatchments

FILE – Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have agreed to sign a memorandum on rights and title with B.C. and Ottawa, but elected chiefs are demanding it be called off over lack of consultation. (Thom Barker photo)
Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, Lake Babine Nation get provincial funding for land, title rights

Government says it’s a new, flexible model for future agreements between Canada, B.C. and First Nations.

The property on which a residential school (pictured) that was torn down years ago in Lower Post is to be the location of a cultural centre. (Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre photo)
Lower Post residential school building to be demolished, replaced with cultural centre

Project to be funded by federal and provincial governments, Daylu Dena Council

Photo collage of loved ones lost to substance use and overdose. (Photo courtesy Moms Stop The Harm)
B.C. overdose deaths still rising 5 years after public health emergency declared

Moms Stop the Harm calls on B.C. to provide safe supply in response to deadly illicit drug use

Angelique Houlihan gets her COVID-19 vaccine jab last week at the community-wide clinic. (Angelique Houlihan photo)
Vaccine clinic continues this week

Plenty of booking spots available

Vancouver resident Beryl Pye was witness to a “concerning,” spontaneous dance party that spread throughout social groups at Kitsilano Beach on April 16. (Screen grab/Beryl Pye)
VIDEO: Dance party erupts at Vancouver’s Kitsilano Beach to the dismay of onlookers

‘It was a complete disregard for current COVID-19 public health orders,’ says Vancouver resident Beryl Pye

Lord Tweedsmuir’s Tremmel States-Jones jumps a player and the goal line to score a touchdown against the Kelowna Owls in 2019. The face of high school football, along with a majority of other high school sports, could significantly change if a new governance proposal is passed at the B.C. School Sports AGM May 1. (Malin Jordan)
Power struggle: New governance model proposed for B.C. high school sports

Most commissions are against the new model, but B.C. School Sports (BCSS) and its board is in favour

Pall Bearers carrying the coffin of the Duke of Edinburgh, followed by the Prince of Wales, left and Princess Anne, right, into St George’s Chapel for his funeral, at Windsor Castle, in Windsor, England, Saturday April 17, 2021. (Danny Lawson/Pool via AP)
Trudeau announces $200K donation to Duke of Edinburgh award as Prince Philip laid to rest

A tribute to the late prince’s ‘remarkable life and his selfless service,’ the Prime Minister said Saturday

B.C. homeowners are being urged to take steps to prepare for the possibility of a flood by moving equipment and other assets to higher ground. (J.R. Rardon)
‘Entire province faces risk’: B.C. citizens urged to prepare for above-average spring flooding

Larger-than-normal melting snowpack poses a threat to the province as warmer weather touches down

Vancouver-based Doubleview Gold Corp. is developing claims in an area north of Telegraph Creek that occupies an important place in Tahltan oral histories, said Chad Norman Day, president of the Tahltan Central Government. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO)
B.C. Indigenous nation opposes mineral exploration in culturally sensitive area

There’s “no way” the Tahltan would ever support a mine there, says Chad Norman Day, president of its central government

Stz’uminus Elder George Harris, Ladysmith Mayor Aaron Stone, and Stz’uminus Chief Roxanne Harris opened the ceremony. (Cole Schisler photo)
Symbolic red dresses rehung along B.C. highway after vandals tore them down

Leaders from Stz’uminus First Nation and the Town of Ladysmith hung new dresses on Sat. April 17

A Western toadlet crosses the centre line of Elk View Road in Chilliwack on Aug. 26, 2010. A tunnel underneath the road has since been installed to help them migrate cross the road. Saturday, April 24 is Save the Frogs Day. (Jenna Hauck/ Progress File)
Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of April 18 to 24

Save the Frogs Day, Love Your Thighs Day and Scream Day are all coming up this week

Local carpenter Tyler Bohn embarked on a quest to create the East Sooke Treehouse, after seeing people build similar structures on a Discovery Channel show. (East Sooke Treehouse Facebook photo)
PHOTOS: B.C. carpenter builds fort inspired by TV’s ‘Treehouse Masters’

The whimsical structure features a wooden walking path, a loft, kitchen – and is now listed on Airbnb

The Attorney General’s Ministry says certain disputes may now be resolved through either a tribunal or the court system, pending its appeal of a B.C. Supreme Court decision that reduced the tribunal’s jurisdiction. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Court of Appeal grants partial stay in ruling on B.C. auto injuries

B.C. trial lawyers challenged legislation brought in to cap minor injury awards and move smaller court disputes to the Civil Resolution Tribunal

Most Read