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Orange shirt day


Honourable senator Beyak,

I am writing to thank you for drawing attention to the other side of the story of residential schools.   Thank you for your courage and honesty.  Stay strong.  I have taken the liberty of attaching a letter I wrote to the teachers of my children's school for Orange shirt day.



Orange Shirt Day

I want to start by saying that none of what follows is meant to diminish in any way the abuse suffered by far too many children in the residential school program.  What some children endured was a nightmare hard to contemplate.

However, in life rarely is anything all black or all white.  On TV, the news and documentaries generally leave one with the impression that all kids who went to residential schools were abused, all schools were bad and all people who worked there were cruel.  This is far from true.

My mother’s side of the family is from the Northwest Territories.  My Grandma is from a Chipewyan village called Rat River near Rocher River on the Taltson River on the SE side of Great Slave Lake.  Most people there were poor to an extent that is hard to imagine today.  Few people could afford shoes so they went barefoot in summer and when the snow came they wore mukluks they made from the animals they hunted.  It was subsistence living from hunting and trapping.  Rich people in the territories always sent their kids south to boarding school but for most (all?) native people that was unthinkable.  For them, residential school was like a boarding school and as Grandma remembers kids were excited  to go.  It was something to be eagerly anticipated.

Without the residential schools those kids would have had no real future, no options other than to continue the subsistence hunting/ trapping that their ancestors had followed.

Having an education provided them with options for their future.

According to various members of the family (from various places in the territories) Kids were not forced to go, but nearly everyone went.  The government paid for kids to go home at certain times of year.  Summer for example, and kids could go at other times if their parents could afford it.  Transportation in the north was challenging and not always reliable but this was not the fault of the schools.

According to my family, there were no rules against speaking your own language but kids in the younger grades were strongly encouraged to speak English in order to facilitate learning the second language.  Older kids usually choose to speak English because English was the ‘elite’ language.  TV, Radio, doctors, politicians and all educated/ important people spoke English so it was the prestigious language. Also, English could be understood by everyone, whereas Chip for example is different from  Dogrib / Dene.  All the kids knew their native language because they needed it when they went home to their families.  However, fewer and fewer people are choosing to speak their native language in the home so over time the languages are dying but again this is not the fault of the schools.  Parents are choosing not to teach their kids.

My family members don’t remember any ‘orange shirt’ type incident.  They say kids were allowed to wear their own clothes.  Girls were required to wear skirts and the skirt had to be a certain length but these were the same rules as the local non res schools.

The children were required to do chores and learned to cook and prepare food etc.  This was viewed as teaching them valuable skills and responsibility.

The strap was used as a discipline method but it was used in all schools at the time and in most homes (or the belt).  Generally if you got the strap at school, you would get it a second time at home.  It was not arbitrary and kids knew in advance exactly which infractions would result in the strap, Certainly there were children who were horrendously abused in some schools but my family says that the schools in Fort Smith (run by Catholic church) and Yellowknife (run by government) were good schools.  Hay River had its own school and yet children from Hay River would choose to go to res in Yellowknife instead because it was a good school.  Kids who could have lived with family in Yellowknife chose to live in res.

One friend of the family lived in Fort Smith and when his mom was widowed she was struggling to feed all the children so she sent them to the residential school (just down the street).  That way they were fed and cared for and she was able to make ends meet.  She could still see them whenever she chose but it was a Godsend for their family to survive.

Another family friend says he was so thankful to go to residential school because for at least part of the year he was able to escape his alcoholic, abusive father.

The residential school in Yellowknife was so popular that even when the residence was shut down in the 70s there was still so much demand that the government paid local families to board kids with them.

My family says that school didn’t cause the culture to be lost.  The kids learnt native crafts and hunting/ trapping when they went home.  Some nuns went out of their way to learn dying native crafts to teach the children.   TV has done far more to destroy the culture than residential schools ever did.

The teachers and staff at the residential schools  were good people who cared about the kids.  Some were better than others and some lost their tempers or had bad days (like most human beings) but they gave their lives to offer the poorest and most marginalized of children a chance for a better future through education.  It is really sad that instead of gratitude, they are now being lumped in with the child abusers who committed horrible atrocities.

Finally no discussion of the residential schools would be complete without bringing up the subject of reparations.  When the conservative government under Stephen Harper agreed to pay every person who had attended a residential school reparations, irrespective of whether or not they were abused, it caused a sea change.  The idea behind it was that all individuals deserve compensation because they lost their culture and language as a result.  However, I’ve already pointed out that is not true for all people.

It is a huge amount of money 10,000$ for the first year and 3,000$ for every year of school after that.  Many members of my extended family and the community took the money, regardless of the fact that they fully acknowledge that residential school was a good thing and they are glad they went and that they did not lose their language or culture as a result.  One great aunt who never attended residential school, lied in order to get the money.  Other family members refused to take it because they believe it is wrong, given that residential school was a positive thing for them.  As you can imagine this has created  contention.  Additionally, one aunt says she would love to know how many Native lives have been lost due to the reparation money.  Tragically, many spent the money on a new truck and a lot of alcohol or drugs and the number of DUI deaths and overdoses that resulted is awful.  Not to mention the number of kids who are abused when the adults are high or drunk.  This aunt says it would have been far wiser if the government had used the money to build arenas, rec centers or such to give kids good places in their community.

Lastly, because of the money there is tremendous pressure on those with positive experiences to be quiet.  One aunt who spoke out at a reconciliation meeting was told to shut up and in another case they actually stopped the cameras and refused to record the positive testimony.  The friend of the family from Fort Smith was interviewed by a professor of sociology from the U or C and when he finished his story the professor told him that he must be in denial.  As he says, he may not have all the degrees of this professor but he isn’t stupid and he knows his own life experience.  All that to say, these huge amounts of money have incentivized the telling of only one narrative.  Even people who had a good experience at school have changed their story to fit what everyone wants to hear and others have simply stopped talking but I don’t think this is right and I sincerely hope that when you discuss this with kids at This school you will acknowledge that, like most things, the residential school program was a mix of the good, the bad and the ugly.

Finally, I asked my aunt what she thought about orange shirt day and she said that if it stops one child from being abused it is wonderful but if it simply serves to keep victims of abuse reliving their trauma then it is a terrible idea.  Ultimately, the only way to find freedom she believes, is to grieve, forgive and then move forward with hope.  Hard as that is.

Thank you for taking the time to hear my extended family's’ experience.