The power in the message that Every Child Matters
By Ameeta Vohra
On Sept. 30, there will be a sea of orange at schools within Halifax Regional Municipality and Nova Scotia.
Once again, Orange Shirt Day will take place all across the country. Also known as the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, this annual occurrence honours Indigenous children who were sent to residential schools. It was observed in May 2013 and serves as a way to learn more about the history of the schools and promote awareness of the impact felt in Indigenous communities.
There is significance for the orange shirt. Residential school survivor Phyllis Webstad was given an orange shirt from her grandmother for her first day of residential school in British Columbia. The shirt symbolizes her experience, including having her new clothes, such as her shirt, stripped away from her and never given back. Webstad created Orange Shirt Day to educate people about residential schools, combating bullying and discrimination, to show that every child matters in a powerful way.
The provincial Department of Education and Early Childhood Development has been at the forefront of supporting schools participating in Orange Shirt Day.
“Beginning in 2017, The Department of Education and Early Childhood Development has encouraged schools to observe Orange Shirt Day and has provided teachers with resources to support age-appropriate discussions about residential schools with their students,” says the provincial department in a statement. “Elders and knowledge holders have been and continue to be an integral part of resource creation and treaty-education professional learning for regional leadership teams and teachers.”
This event has never been more relevant and essential than this year. With the discovery of the remains of hundreds of children at residential schools across Canada in recent weeks, the department is encouraging all schools to take time to reflect on the events while supporting those who feel a sense of mourning.
“It is important we support Mi’kmaw/Indigenous students and staff in their journey of healing during this time, as many will turn to traditional ways to strengthen their wellbeing,” the department says. “We do this by walking together and supporting one another on this journey of healing and reconciliation.”
Schools provide additional supports to help students in trying to understand events or need avenues of healing.
“Each Regional Centre for Education has a coordinator of Mi’kmaq Services and a number of Mi’kmaq/Indigenous Student Support Workers who are valuable resources as we create a safe space for students to practise culturally-based healing. In addition, school counsellors, other support specialists and Elders are available if students require further support.”
Children are finding ways to acknowledge events. Landyn Toney is a 12-year-old Mi’kmaw boy whose Journey of Awareness captured the attention of many people nationally and internationally. Toney walked 195.5 kilometres over six days from Bible Hill to Annapolis Valley First Nation (where he was born), intending to spread awareness for survivors and children who never did make it home while safely supporting people. He raised close to $30,000.
“I’m not the kind of person that just wants to let my anger go,” he said to CBC Nova Scotia. “I wanted to show my anger by doing something good.”
Aside from wearing an orange shirt to show support, children can find other ways to acknowledge the day with their families. Some of those include reading The Orange Book Story by Phyllis Webstad, sharing Webstad’s story via YouTube, doing artwork including tracing a hand to write something that represents your part in helping others feel that they matter, host a viewing of an event being hosted by National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, finding avenues to fundraise or raise awareness and creating a memorial to honour the victims of residential schools.
Furthermore, children and their families can collectively educate themselves by reading books about residential schools by Indigenous authors. Halifax Public Libraries is the place to go for that and so much more.
“When seeking to acknowledge Orange Shirt Day, your public library will have programming and resources to help you and your kids learn—and unlearn—about the stories of survivors and their families and to remember those who didn’t make it,” says communications officer Kasia Morrison on behalf of her team at the Halifax Library who are working on the programming for Orange Shirt Day this fall.“In 2020, the library worked with Indigenous partners and opened an online portal full of resources that build understanding of the indigenous experience. This year, Halifax Public Libraries is continuing to work with community partners to hear where the library can amplify grassroots and community-led initiatives, leaders, and movements. Reading stories together can help children understand what they’re hearing and focus on empathy, love and learning.”
Halifax Public Libraries has books available for all reading levels to build age-appropriate knowledge of Canada’s residential schools. You can find titles and more at halifaxpubliclibraries.ca or your local library branch.