Good Neighbours: Marking Orange Shirt Day at SMUS

Well, Nosisum…when I was your age, at home in my community, my friends and I wore many different colours. But at the school I went to, far away from home, they gave us different clothes to wear. All the children dressed the same, and our clothes weren’t colourful at all. We all mixed together like storm clouds.
When We Were Alone

With Ms. Duffus in the role of grandmother and students Haley and Abi sitting on either side as her grandchildren, the trio read, during Junior School Chapel on Monday, from David A. Robertson’s account of what it meant for Canada’s Indigenous children to be placed in residential schools. The story paralleled the real-life experience of another First Nations child, Phyllis Webstad, who arrived at her school wearing a brightly coloured orange shirt, which was taken from her and replaced with a uniform.

Grade 4 student Haley approached the school about marking Orange Shirt Day as a community. Abi, a Grade 2 student, joined in organizing the Chapel, while Haley took a further step with her friends to raise money for a local First Nations school by making and selling orange bracelets.

She wrote to the parents of the school, saying, On October 1st, the Junior School will be having an Orange Shirt Day. Orange Shirt Day is a time to honour the residential school survivors. Residential school was not a nice place for Indigenous kids. This will be an important day to the Indigenous people.” This week, with a matching donation from a community parent, the group raised $1,400.

Our Chapel this week began by recognizing the diversity within our Indigenous communities, followed by our school’s acknowledgement:

One of the four pillars of St. Michaels University School is respect. With this in mind, we acknowledge that our school rests in the heart of Straits Salish territory, a living culture with its own rites, ceremonies, and unfolding history. We honour the Esquimalt, Songhees, and W̱SÁNEĆ peoples – whose homelands we share and whom we recognize as our neighbours.

We then picked up on the theme of what it looks like to be good neighbours and the students spent some time in silence to ponder their responses. After this, Bill White and Wes Edwards, two members of our local First Nations community, stepped forward to lead us in traditional prayers and drumming. After setting some context as to how residential schools were different from our own school (after all, don’t we wear uniforms?), Ms. Duffus, Haley and Abi shared the story, before we closed with the idea that through this day, we are actively trying to be better neighbours.

Orange Shirt Day continues a longer, very intentional journey at SMUS. Bill White, a well-respected Coast Salish elder, has been working closely with our school, ensuring that each step we take moves us towards an authentic relationship with our local peoples. By working with a traditional elder, we’re finding our way through the diverse landscape, both addressing our history and building relationships for the future.

In the past year, Bill has consulted with us on our curriculum, assisted us in drafting our formal recognition statement, delivered a workshop to our entire faculty, engaged with some of our classes and led a retreat for our art teachers. All of this has enhanced the work already being undertaken by our staff in direct response to shifts in B.C.’s curriculum.

It feels so appropriate that our inaugural Orange Shirt Day took place at the Junior School, where our students are first introduced to Indigenous culture and history as part of the curriculum. With the work undertaken by Bill and our staff, the foundation was in place for Haley, Abi and their friends to step forward and embody who we hope to be with each other. They acted as models of the promise that lies within us all.

Especially in the current climate of heightened rhetoric and posturing, I feel personally thankful for Monday’s Chapel, where we both recognized where our society went horribly wrong and we experienced how enriching life can be when we’re good neighbours, finding our way forward together.

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