Many Indigenous leaders across the province and country used Sept. 30 to bring conversation, education and awareness to issues facing Indigenous people, as well as honour children who were forced to attend Canada’s residential school.
Wednesday was Orange Shirt Day, a day to remember the thousands of children, some as young as five, who were taken from their parents to attend a residential school, something Elder Shirley Williams says was a horrific time for her.
Speaking to a panel hosted by Ontario Tech Indigenous Education and Cultural Services, Williams recounted her time at Spanish Residential School.
“I left at eight years old. They took my suitcase, and it still upsets me to think of that,” says Williams.
Between 1890 and 1996, 150,000 children were forced by the Canadian Government to attend the institutions, to which Williams says is the correct word to describe the schools.
“Yes, it was an institution. They kept us like prisoners, wouldn’t let us talk our language nor see our parents,” adds Williams.
In order to keep her language alive, Williams said she would speak it with only those she trusted and would talk to herself a lot or under the blankets at night time.
Upwards of 80,000 children survived while more than 6,000 perished, according to Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) chair Murray Sinclair. The TRC has 94 calls to action and only a handful have been honoured by the Canadian Government and other entities, says Sinclair.
One survivor who wished to remain anonymous said attending the Mohawk Institute in Brantford Ontario, which accepted the first students in 1831, was nothing short of being in jail. It closed in June 1970. Two years later it was turned into a historical site.
He says when the four-door sedan approached the reserve, all the kids were fascinated at the sight of the shiny car and it wasn’t until he was put in the back seat and taken away from his parents did he feel scared.
“I didn’t know my parents when the same style of car brought me back a decade later. I was 16 and I didn’t know them. I didn’t recognize them,” he said.