Residential school survivors, families of survivors and lost ones and non-Indigenous allies formed a sea of orange that packed Victoria’s Centennial Square on Thursday, the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
The Xe xe Smun’ eem-Victoria Orange Shirt Day ceremony has been held in the city on every Sept. 30 since 2015, but honouring the children who never came home carried extra pain this year in the wake of unmarked graves being found at residential school sites across Canada.
The downtown square’s crowd came to honour those lost children, to recognize the families who continue to face hardships because of residential schools and for a day of healing that could start to rebuild a relationship anew.
“To all those who have lost a loved one in residential school, my prayer is for you today, my prayer is for everyone hurting in their heart,” Elder May Sam said in a land blessing to open the ceremony. “I’m going to pray for your strength, your health, your happiness.”
Somber silences fell over the crowd as they listened to the long-suppressed survivor stories. One speaker came home from the institution he was taken to, but some of his siblings did not.
“I haven’t told the story of what happened to me in the residential school, it’s hard,” he said.
He was glad to tell his story on Thursday for all those who never got to share theirs.
“Don’t be scared to say who you are and where you come from.”
Brianna Bear, a Coast Salish artist, said gatherings like Thursdays weren’t possible in recent memory, but people are now making the conscious effort to recognize the people, languages and culture that residential schools sought to destroy.
“To all the elders who are out here today who are survivors of residential schools, to the families who have been affected by intergenerational trauma and to those who are looking to find your roots again, I welcome you to place of smoked herring lands,” Bear said.
She asked people to listen to the teachings of Indigenous Elders if they don’t know where to start on the path to reconciliation.
“Walk in a good way, even if you don’t know what that means yet. It’ll come to you as you learn,” she said.
Eddy Charlie, who started Victoria’s Orange Shirt Day events with his friend Kristin Spray, said he hopes the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation “allows us to open up, have more conversations and bring our truth out into the open.”
“I hope that when we do that, we’ll be able to accept ourselves for who we were meant to be and not let residential schools dictate where we walk, what we do or what kind of destruction we’re going to allow our children to carry,” he said. “I don’t want my legacy to be anger and hatred, I want to leave something really good for my grandchildren.”
Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps said the ceremony was a way to hear of the pain, loss and anger that the residential school system inflicted.
“We’re here today, as non-Indigenous people, as a commitment to continue to listen, to continue to walk this path, to continue to believe the stories that we’re told and to continue to love, with open hearts, our Indigenous brothers and sisters,” she said.
Daniele Behn Smith, Indigenous Health’s deputy provincial health officer, said Orange Shirt Day is an opportunity for Indigenous people to start holding each other up and embrace their songs and dances, while for the non-Indigenous people, it’s a chance to start having hard conversations.
“There are no words that can make this right, only actions,” she said.
Before leading the crowd in song, Lindsay Lichty said “to see this sea of orange is such a powerful image to be reflected, it’s a sea of love.”
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