Eddy Charlie wasn’t convinced when his good friend and classmate Kristin Spray asked him to launch a Victoria chapter of Orange Shirt Day with her.
He wasn’t sure he could revisit the pain, trauma and anger he had fought so hard to heal from in the 50 years since he was forced to attend the Kuper Island Residential School. Memories of physical, sexual and emotional abuse will always live with him. His one blind eye and inability to hear, caused by a coma-inducing suicide attempt while seven years old, are everlasting reminders of just how bad things got.
When Spray first asked Charlie about Orange Shirt Day it was 2014 and they were in their first year of the Indigenous studies course at Camosun College – Charlie there to rediscover an identity white settlers had tried so hard to stamp out of him, Spray there as a non-Indigenous ally determined to learn and take action. They were fresh friends with incredibly different backstories, but a shared desire to change the future.
Orange Shirt Day, also now known as the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, was started by residential school survivor Phyllis Webstad. At age six, unaware of what was to come, Webstad had proudly worn a new, shiny orange shirt to her first day of school. It was immediately taken from her, signalling all that would be stolen from her in the months to come.
Spray gently nudged Charlie for a year toward taking on the project in Victoria, but it wasn’t until he overheard some students diminishing the experiences of residential school survivors while studying in Camosun’s library one day that he agreed.
“I don’t understand these Indigenous people,” Charlie remembers one of the students saying. “I don’t understand why they have to keep on talking about residential schools. It’s time for them to forget about that and move on.”
This is one of Charlie’s worst fears – that one day all the survivors will be dead, and if they haven’t told their stories often enough, it will be as if nothing happened.
“They (survivors) are walking, talking history books and I think we need to listen to them,” Charlie says. “That’s the best way to honour them and allow healing to happen little bit by little bit.”
Of course, when Charlie says “they,” he really means “I” as well.
Sitting on the steps of the B.C. legislature on a Wednesday morning in September, surrounded by hundreds of stuffed animals and notes honouring the thousands of children lost to residential schools, Charlie recounts some of the horrors they, and he, endured.
“When these children were placed in residential schools, they were physically abused, emotionally abused, called ‘stupid Indians.’ They were starved and they were beaten for speaking the language they practice in their culture. But that’s not the worst of it. The worst of it is that many of the children were also sexually abused. And not just a few times, but many times over a period of one year to 16 years,” he says.
Charlie holds one of Spray’s two dogs as he speaks. Pinya, or “spirit of reconciliation” as Charlie calls her, is a calming presence for him.
Abused over and over, Charlie says survivors were twisted into unrecognizable people.
“Residential school created the perfect hate machine out of all these children, and then released them back into their communities,” he says. Overflowing with hate, anger and resentment, and with no place that felt like home any longer, Charlie says many survivors were driven to destructive coping mechanisms.
Intergenerational trauma ensued.
More than 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Metis children are estimated to have attended Canada’s residential schools. Between 4,000 and 6,000 of them died there.
There’s decades-long pain in Charlie’s voice as he speaks, but he says he knows sharing his story, spreading awareness with Spray, and organizing Orange Shirt Day every year is the way forward. They’re planting the seeds of change, Charlie says, so one day, maybe seven generations from now, Indigenous people will face a different reality.
Now is the time for people to listen and do their genuine best to understand, Charlie says. Part of that, Spray adds as she sits next to Charlie on the legislature steps, is sitting with discomfort.
After attending the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearing in Vancouver in 2013, Spray spent eight months sitting with the horror of what she’d heard before deciding to enrol at Camosun.
“Feel the collective grief and the hurt and the pain,” she says. “And be okay with … being uncomfortable for longer than a week or two.”
Reconciliation is about more than just grieving, though, Charlie says. It’s also about celebrating Indigenous people’s resilience in standing up and reclaiming what was stolen from them. And, it’s about Indigenous and non-Indigenous people coming together under the shared umbrella of humanity.
“Change can only happen when we respect each other, when we honour each other, and hold each other up,” Charlie says.
There’s a phrase his grandfather always used to tell him that has stuck with Charlie to this day: “There is room in the circle for everyone.”
Reconciliation requires a collective, continuous and adaptive effort from all sides. Charlie and Spray hope Greater Victoria residents will put on an orange shirt and join them Sept. 30 in remembering and moving forward.
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