On Wednesday, September 30, people from all across Canada will wear orange shirts to honour and remember the children who suffered the ominous genocide that was the residential schools. From 1820-1996 over 150 000 Indigenous children were taken from their families and placed in schools run by the Canadian Government. The goal of these institutions was to eradicate the Indigenous culture starting with the young children- to “kill the Indian in the child”. Once they arrived at these establishments, the victims were given new names, had their skin bleached, hair cut, and were prohibited from speaking their native language. If they were caught doing anything related to their culture, there would be severe consequences. Children were abused physically, sexually, and most of all, mentally. They were brainwashed by the Canadian Government to speak a distinct language, behave a certain way, and have a different faith.
The aftermath of the schools thus brought forth dire consequences for the survivors. Many of them lost contact with their families, and others turned to substance abuse to help relieve their pains. A lot of the victims passed on the negative behaviour they received in the schools to their own children, thus ruining relationships between generations of families after the last one closed.
To help spread awareness for Orange Shirt Day, I recently sat down with Biidaaban, who is part of the Anishinabe group. She has been personally affected by the residential schools, their aftermath, and the racism that continues to exist against Indigenous people today.
Biidaaban began her story by explaining what her name means. “My name means the bringer of light. It also means the very first light of the day. When the sun is just about to rise above the horizon, the very soft glow that you see is Biidaaban,” she explains. She remarks on the huge responsibility she felt upon finding out her Indigenous name: “I was told by a Seer (Edler) who can speak with the other side, that my soul has always had this name. I have been born to my specific family with the purpose of one day bringing my culture back.”
It wasn’t always like this though. Biidaaban grew up in a Catholic French-speaking family. “When you’re raised with that fear and environment (in the schools), you are going to have mental issues and fear of using your Native language. So when you have children, you aren’t going to pass along your language, you are going to pass on the one that they forced upon you in school,” she explains. This was the reality of many survivors’ families.
Despite this, Biidaaban was always aware of her Indigenous background. “I was always ashamed of my background. My parents, friends, television, and everything else made me feel this way. In my town, You were either white and French or Native,” she recalls. “I would be walking on the street and see a group of people stop an Indigenous child to harass them for no reason other than the fact that they were Native. This is why there is an extremely high suicide rate among First Nations children.”
Fear of being separated from your family was very common amongst the families of the Indigenous people. There is a lot of systemic trauma caused by the residential schools that continue to affect their families to this day. Many children of survivors grow up with a sense of hyper-vigilance due to the amount of drug, emotional, and even physical injury they experience as a result of their parents’ mental issues. “You could get abused at any time, so you build up defense systems. You are always watching for someone’s next move, and are always in a constant state of fight. It is mentally exhausting and interferes with things like school because you have no energy left to do anything else.”
The aftermath of the Residential schools continues to affect Biidaaban: “Because I know very well that this easily could have been me or even my children being taken away. Every day, I smudge with sage and have a ceremony to thank the Creator for everything I have. I pray for the people who are suffering, and for those who have passed.”
Biidaaban was about thirty years old when she began to embrace her culture and let go of the faith she grew up believing. She began to read about her background, and implement the teachings into her everyday life. Unfortunately, this came at a cost. Biidaaban was recently at a food truck, sporting her Native gear and waiting to pick up her fries. A group of cowboys waiting near her began to make rude comments and described all the terrible things they would do to her, just loud enough for Biidaaban to hear. “I walked back to my car without my food. I could not stand there a minute longer,” she recalls.
The relationship between the Autochthonous people and the rest of Canada continues to be rocky. Biidaaban admits that while things are getting slightly better, there is still much to be done: “I think it’s great that the Indigenous people are starting to rise. People are becoming aware of the issues they did not previously know of. The general public is beginning to learn about the truth. It’s a good start, but we still have a long way to go.” For example, many Canadians are not aware that there are right and wrong ways to refer to Indigenous people. Terms like “Aboriginal” are not acceptable. Biidaaban says that the most preferred way to refer to an Indigenous person is to refer to their group, such as Mohawk or Anishinabe. However, she also acknowledges that it is not always possible to know this information: “Call us Indigenous. At any time that you show respect, we won’t mind. It’s all in your delivery and willingness to be open-minded,” she declares. Biidaaban also says that a good step for the Canadian Government would be to elect more Indigenous leaders to make decisions for their own people.
So, why is Orange Shirt Day so important? “To bring awareness to residential schools and the children who have gone there. All of those children matter and deserve to be remembered,” Biidaaban answers. Canada still has a lot of work left to do to restore our relationship with the Indigenous people. Wearing an orange shirt is a big step in acknowledging and remembering Canadian history.
If you would like to find out more about how you can make a difference, please visit the Orange Shirt Day website at https://www.orangeshirtday.org.