BUILDING BRIDGES: Colourful lessons learned

Orange Shirt Day starts important conversations about human rights, writes columnist Taslim Jaffer

By the end of the first week of classes earlier this month, my kitchen island was a mess of forms to fill out for each child.

I plowed through them diligently and made note of special events that were coming up.

When I came across a form called Orange Shirt Day, I snorted. Now I have to buy my kids an orange shirt?

I’m all for spirit days – when students are encouraged to wear something special or get creative (and crazy) with their hairstyles, but I just didn’t see the point of choosing some random colour to wear, and then have to buy a shirt just to participate.

Then I noticed the slogan Every Child Matters and the logo of an indigenous totem, and my interest was piqued.

I turned the form over and found a paragraph explaining that Orange Shirt Day commemorates the residential-school experience during which, among other things, indigenous children were forced to give up their identity and language and to subscribe to European teachings.

Every Child Matters is meant to remind school teachers that each child who walks through their doors is a human being with rights, and it serves to recognize the survivors of residential schools.

Orange is not just a random colour; it is the same colour shirt that Phyllis Webstad, member of the Dog Creek band, was forced to give up when she started school at St. Joseph’s Residential School. The shirt was a gift from her grandmother, and at six years old having this shirt taken from her by her schoolteacher was a message that she was insignificant.

Our children are being asked to wear their orange shirts to school this Friday (Sept. 30), and there will likely be some conversation about the significance of Every Child Matters delivered in an age-appropriate manner.

I’m wondering, how do we talk about this with our children? What will you say to your children when they ask why they’re wearing orange shirts? What do you hope your teacher speaks about in class? What do you hope remains quiet?

It is such a difficult thing to conceptualize, even as an adult, the brutal treatment of people based on the colour of their skin, their beliefs, their language.

I am thankful I have never had to help my children through any kind of scenario in which they have been discriminated against, and I hope they are always protected from that.

But at the same time, racism isn’t something I can sweep under the rug and hope it stays there. And I certainly don’t want to contribute to the ‘privileged’ mentality of people who don’t have to think about or worry about the things that other people do.

For one thing, the survivors of residential schools deserve to have their stories shared. People like Phyllis Webstad should be recognized for having endured what she did. Everything that orange shirt stands for must be a conversation so that we remember, and so that we can continue to work toward reconciliation.

In 1987, my family and I made a trip up island and visited the Ahousaht First Nation community on the west coast of Vancouver Island. My memories include a choppy ride on a small boat, a tour guide named Corby, a smoked-salmon lunch and meeting Peter S. Webster.

Webster was born in 1908 and passed away in 1993. He was an advocate for the preservation of his Nu-Cha-Nulth culture and heritage, and he wrote a book, As Far As I Know: Reminiscences of an Ahousaht Elder, that has sat on every bookshelf I have owned since the day I met him. In it, Webster describes the various ceremonies of his people, traditional stories, his personal memories growing up, and his hopes, dreams and concerns for the younger generations.

Looking through it now, as an adult, I can see how much richness it contains. I’d like my children to know these stories and get to know people of First Nations, Metis and Inuit descent. I’d like them to know and appreciate the diversity of the indigenous community, and I hope that, as they get older, they come to know the details of why a particular orange shirt was purchased when they were in elementary school.

I want them to not just know the details, but to continue the work of building bridges.

Taslim Jaffer writes monthly on multicultural connections.

 

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