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Students Zoom into Orange Shirt Day

Over 4,000 in Maple Ridge/Pitt Meadows learn about residential schools
Amanda Nicholson’s Grade 1/2 class at Eric Langton Elementary participate in Orange Shirt Day activities on Sept. 30. (Justin Bedall/Special to The News)

Kids in Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows schooled donned orange shirts and sweaters for a day to stand with survivors of the residential school system.

Children learned about Phyllis Webstad and how her orange shirt was removed when she went to the Mission school as a six-year-old from the Dog Creek Reserve in 1973. They learned more about the pain and loss of freedom imposed on First Nations children in the residential school system.

Kirsten Urdahl-Serr, acting principal of Aboriginal education for the district, said there was a virtual presentation for more than 4,000 students and their teachers. It included a video of St. Mary’s School in Mission prepared by the teacher team. Jessica Knott, an Aboriginal resource teacher whose family has direct links to this school shared reflections of this history, and Amelia Laidlaw, also an Aboriginal resource Teacher, answering questions from the classrooms.

READ ALSO: Orange Shirt Day spreads awareness across B.C.

They did it with two huge Zoom meetings involving 190 classrooms.

“We talked about hope and resilience,” said Knott. She said it was successful, “given the dynamics of this school year.”

“There were some amazing questions – they were really interested,” said Laidlaw. “They were tuned in and seeking knowledge.”

One elementary student asked “Did people know kids were being hurt in residential schools?”

Non-Indigenous community members would volunteer to help in the schools. These volunteers wrote letters to Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (now called Crown - Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada - CIRNAC) to report the deplorable living conditions. Often, these requests for improvements or medical assistance were ignored. Laidlaw shared a documented story of a doctor sharing protocols to stop small pox from moving through a school, and his recommendations were ignored.

“How old are the students now who attended the last school which closed in 1996 in Saskatchewan?” asked another.

The answer was that a kindergarten-aged child from that school would now be 29.

Shyama Priya, a Cree powwow dancer, provided students with a powwow dancing lesson for 30 minutes. Knott said they could watch the kids react to the performance through their monitors.

“We could see the kids dancing with Shyama, which was amazing.”

The BC Assembly of First Nations called Sept. 30 a day to stand in solidarity with residential school survivors, an opportunity for Canadians to embrace reconciliation, and to learn more about Indigenous people’s experience in the residential school system, which was enforced by the Canadian government for more than a century.

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Neil Corbett

About the Author: Neil Corbett

I have been a journalist for more than 30 years, the past decade with the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows News.
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