Residential school survivors and their families reflect on Orange Shirt Day

Stephanie Harpe was 11 when she and her brother were taken from their mother and placed in Edmonton’s Atonement Home. They were separated and abused, trauma they live with to this day.

“I was almost killed at Christmas dinner,for not eating my peas. I almost choked to death,” Harpe recalled in a conversation with CBC’s Edmonton AM host Mark Connolly. “I had a horrible, horrible experience.”

Today is Orange Shirt Day, the national day to promote awareness and education on the history and legacy of residential schools.

Harpe made sure her voice was heard by hosting a digital program in Edmonton as part of a multi-partner event with speakers and musicians.

Now marked across Canada, Orange Shirt Day started in 2013 in Williams Lake, B.C., at an event to recognize the legacy of St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School.

There, former student Phyllis Webstad recalled having her new orange shirt taken away on her first day of school at the mission.

Orange Shirt Day has since become a day for reflection and learning, Harpe told Edmonton AM.

“This is a day I reflect on my own survival, my people’s survival and the way the genocide, the trauma, the death has bled into our every day of living,” she said. “We have to keep talking about this. There are still Canadians who know nothing about this, or don’t understand.”

Harpe considers herself a residential school survivor. However, Atonement Home is not classified as a residential school because it didn’t receive federal funding. That’s the case with many schools where Indigenous children were placed.

Harpe said that to this day, it bothers her to drive past Atonement Home, which still stands in Edmonton’s McCauley neighbourhood.

While Harpe was hosting the digital event, schoolchildren across Alberta, and the country, wore orange shirts Wednesday while they learned about the residential schools legacy.

Orange Shirt Day at Edmonton City Hall in 2017. (Gareth Hampshire/CBC)

At Maskwacis, south of Edmonton, children were walking from the local shopping centre to the current high school, on the site of a former residential school. It’s also the site of a monument to the survivors of residential schools.

Al Wolfe, events coordinator for Ermineskin Cree Nation, helped plan the event. Both his parents went to residential school in Maskwacis.

Wolfe said his parents didn’t talk much about their experience, so he was shocked when his mom started writing some of her personal stories from that time.

“She talked about how she was caught speaking Cree,” he said. “The nuns didn’t want them speaking Cree, so when she went out for recess, the kids that were in detention had to stay on one side of the fence. That was, maybe, her first experience of being contained, like being put in jail.”

Wolfe said he hoped Wednesday’s walk will help school-aged kids learn and remember.

“I do this in honour of our people who attended residential schools,” he said. “I really want our future generations to remember our past and our history.”

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