Emma Godard was 10 when she first learned about residential schools. Her mother is Mi’kmaq and she has family members who have stories of abuse and neglect.
“My mum was kind of having a bad day and she started talking about it. And she just told me stories that other people have told her.”
Now a Grade 10 student at Stelly’s Secondary in Central Saanich, Godard, her classmates and their teachers are engaging with truth and reconciliation, culminating in Orange Shirt Day, which many schools on the Saanich Peninsula observed on Fri., Sept. 29.
Orange Shirt Day was started by Phyllis Jack Webstad, a Northern Secwpemc (Shuswap) woman who had her orange shirt confiscated on her first day of residential school in 1973. In 2013, people in Williams Lake began to observe Orange Shirt Day in recognition of the legacy left by St. Joseph’s Mission residential school, and it has since spread across the country.
Leading up to Orange Shirt Day, one class surveyed students, teachers and parents about their thoughts on reconciliation. They wrote them down and displayed them in the library. Students also heard from Indigenous author Monique Gray-Smith about residential schools, and local W̱SÁNEĆ people came to the school and included students in bone games, a traditional guessing game.
Tracy Murphy, a Grade 10 social studies teacher, has been showing video clips from the Aboriginal People’s Television Network (APTN) on incarceration rates among Indigenous people, and asked students to look at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action, which are meant to provide concrete ways for Canadians to improve relations with Indigenous peoples.
When about her thoughts on reconciliation, she took a breath. “I’ve been asking so many people and I haven’t thought about it myself.”
Murphy, whose masters’ thesis was on the Truth and Reconciliation Commision, said, “I think it means learning about what’s happening and how the past still affects today. It means coming to terms with what I need to do to go forward as a Canadian to create a peaceful society.”
Murphy said that it has been a difficult topic to discuss between students, but that she tried to let students lead discussions and initiatives instead of imposing as the teacher. Some students, like Auzzie Chambers, stayed late after school with Godard and others to create posters marking the day. They only had white paper, so they used orange paint instead.
“I got no actual schoolwork done yesterday,” Godard laughed.
Godard wants to go into law, and wants to work with Indigenous or LGBTQ community groups, but she does not know which direction she wants to go yet.
“It’s always hard for me to listen to everything but I understand that everyone else needs to learn about this, so I’m okay.”