Schools across the NWT spent Thursday having conversations about reconciliation as they marked Orange Shirt Day and the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
In Yellowknife, Yellowknives Dene First Nation drummers Bobby Drygeese, Cody Drygeese and Ethan Sundberg went from school to school with Elder Beatrice Sangris.
They led prayers, drum dances and feeding-the-fire ceremonies.
“Every school chose to acknowledge the day differently, but they were all beautiful in their own way,” said Andrea Harding, the YK1 school district’s Indigenous language education coordinator.
“It’s really important that students can see themselves reflected back in the education system, and I think that is our duty.
“If we’re really being true to reconciling our histories, we need to acknowledge the past hurt that’s been done. I think part of that is honouring and recognizing these days, and inviting families to be part of those ceremonies.”
This report relates to genocide and violence committed against Indigenous children and communities. If you require support, the National Indian Residential School Crisis Line can be reached 24 hours a day by calling 1-866-925-4419.
Harding described the importance of creating “spaces where ceremony can be passed down to the next generation, because a lot of that was taken away during the legacy of residential schools.”
At Range Lake North School, Grade 8 students Emma Grace Wells and Larah Peters led an assembly about the importance of recognition and reconciliation.
“When I was younger, I remember I thought Canada was the best place in the world,” Wells told Cabin Radio.
“It was a place where no one ever did anything wrong. And then I got older, and I realized that’s not true. I’m still trying to see the good things, but there’s also a lot of bad things that you have to acknowledge.
“Today and tomorrow are important days to remember people who never got to come home, and the people who did come home different people, and could never forget the hell they went through.”
Peters agreed, adding the importance of moving forward with reconciliation.
“It’s a day to acknowledge everything that happened, but also to try to fix things and not have it happen again,” she said.
Earlier this week, students at Yellowknife’s Mildred Hall School placed messages on orange paper to appear in the school’s windows. The lights will be left on in classrooms in each evening, presenting an orange glow visible to the community. In Fort McPherson, staff said a similar display would take place at Chief Julius School. Aklavik held a window-decorating contest.
Deb Horen, a program support teacher at Mildred Hall, said conversations about residential schools can be helpful even with the youngest students.
“They have connections. They know somebody who attended residential school, or their parents know somebody,” she said. “Addressing their questions with open and honest questions is important to them, to be able to connect with those people.”
Yasemine Heyck, the principal at Range Lake, said finding a balance in those conversations is crucial.
“We use a lot of children’s books with our younger grades,” Heyck explained.
“It’s been really impressive, in the last few years, how many new children’s picture books have come out about residential schools and Orange Shirt Day.
“It’s all about making sure that everybody feels welcome and cared for and safe – so they do go into the history of residential schools but not a lot of details, because the kids just won’t understand.”
More in-depth conversations begin in Grade 4, as directed by the curriculum. Heyck says details outlining what she termed the more “horrific” impact of residential schools are given in grades 7 and 8.
Sharing stories to teach
Madelaine Chocolate, an Elder at Mildred Hall School who teaches the Tłı̨chǫ language, has spent recent weeks sharing her residential school stories with students.
Chocolate’s method of telling that story differs based on the age of her audience. With some, she uses cutouts shaped into hearts. With others, she makes small orange shirts.
At an assembly on Thursday, Chocolate encouraged students to join a chant of the words: “My story, my life, I matter.”
Below, read a transcript of Cabin Radio’s full interview with Chocolate, in which she shares her story and discusses how she teaches younger generations about Orange Shirt Day.
This interview was recorded on September 29, 2022. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Megan Miskiman: Tell me about the preparations for today.
Madelaine Chocolate: I started several weeks ago, and I thought: ‘How can I bring out the orange in our stories?’
I decided I would get them to reflect on my story, so I made hearts, and I shared with them what it was like for me when I first left home.
I didn’t know what school was all about. All I knew was that my older brother and sister were going out to school. So when my mom made me a brand new pair of moccasins, along with my brother and sister, I felt like I was all dressed and ready to go to school. My mom made a new dress for my sister and I, and so we had our new clothes, new moccasins, and we walked to the bus.
We were just going to see my brother and sister off but, when we got to the bus, I saw my sister getting on and I got on too, thinking I was going for a bus ride to school. She kicked me off. I got on, she kicked me off again. I don’t know how many times I did this, and finally she grabbed me by the hair and dragged me off the bus and said, ‘Mom, hold on to her, she can’t come with me, I’m going to school.’ At that moment, I looked at my mom and said, ‘Mom, I want to go to school, too.’
She tried to explain to me that I’d be going far away and I’d be going for a long time, but I had no concept of that, so when I said I wanted to go to school, she turned to my dad and asked: ‘What do we do with her?’
He tried to explain to me that I’d be going far away and I’d be gone a long time. But when I said again that I wanted to go, he turned to the man that was writing the names of the students, and the man asked: ‘How old is she?’ My dad said, ‘She just turned five’, and the man said, ‘Old enough.’ He wrote my name down and I was allowed to get on the bus. And that’s how I left home.
Halfway to Yellowknife on that dusty and hot drive, I started to think: ‘Where am I going? Where are they taking me?’ And when I thought I may never see mom or dad again, I started to cry at that very moment and I thought: ‘What did I get myself into?’ My sister saw me crying, and she came to me and said, ‘Don’t cry, I’m going to be with you, I’ll watch over you.’ We looked back and she said, ‘Our older brother is with us, he’ll keep an eye on us.’ And I was comforted with that.
When we got to the residential school, it was a totally different setting altogether. It was so different from life with my parents. The school was so full of rules, everything was by the rules. There were some times when we’d get up in the morning, go for breakfast, go get ready for school, walk to school, we’d be in school all day, go back to the restaurant for lunch, have some play time, then go back to school again. We’d be there all afternoon, until the end of the day. That was a whole new life for me.
When I got there, I didn’t know a word of English and I was told I couldn’t speak my language. Looking back, I realize that for more than 10 years, I didn’t speak my heart and my mind. But at the time, when I realized the challenge I was facing, I just made up my mind and decided I was going to learn the English language.
I paid close attention to what the teacher was saying and I found out that the language is based on these 26 letters. By shuffling them around, you can create a lot of new words. I started to understand and I worked hard at learning and understanding. When I found out that I could master the lessons that were taught, I thought it would help me, as well as getting good marks. So I worked hard, and I found that it gave me a lot of pleasure, learning new things, especially stories. I had a kindergarten teacher that used to read stories, and I used to love hearing her read the stories because my mind could travel. It was like I could go to another world altogether, which was new to me.
There are a lot of things that happened there, but I try to focus on my healing. When I think about this orange shirt, I think: ‘Phyllis lost an orange shirt. What did I lose?’ My mom made me a brand new pair of moccasins. I recall seeing a lot of young people wearing brand new moccasins. So many of us lost our moccasins, our mom spent all night working on mine and my siblings’. So, when I think about what we lost, it’s like we were severing ties with our tradition, our language, our culture, our spirituality, everything that mattered to us. We were taken away from that. We were put in a place where we had to learn a whole new way of life that was not ours, and that was a real struggle.
How do you have these conversations with the younger kids who might not understand because of their age?
With the younger kids, I created the hearts because I knew that our younger kids could understand them, and for me they were a wordless story, and I could use them to tell my story and they could follow along with me. It was really neat how they caught on to that. I focused on this being my story, and our story, and what parts make us sad and how we can turn our days around. We can decide to work hard.
Beading is traditional and something people enjoy, so with the grade 3s and 4s I helped them make orange sun-catcher necklaces to help them make the connection. They’re able to understand what truth and reconciliation is all about.
With the grade 5s to 8s we made small orange t-shirts with a little bit of bead on it, to help them understand what their grandparents and parents and aunts and uncles went through at residential school.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
When I hear reports of finding unmarked graves, that hurts my heart more than anything. It brings tears to my eyes. I don’t talk about it much but, with the bigger kids, I did talk to them about it, and it helps me to be free of the pain that I witnessed.
When I was still at home, when somebody died, my mom would say that the bushmen came and took this person, because I didn’t understand death at the time. I used to get mad at these bushmen. How could they come and take people?
When I went to residential school, after a whole year, we celebrated with a picnic. The bus took us and there were four groups: junior girls, junior boys, senior girls and senior boys. As junior girls, we all got on the bus and they drove us to the picnic site. Along the way, we passed a truck. Back then, there was no law against sitting or standing in the back of a truck. This truck had a lot of senior girls standing in the back. When we pulled up to the picnic site, we all got out of the bus, and it wasn’t long after that the truck that was carrying the girls arrived. When it pulled up. I didn’t know what he was thinking, but I think he was trying to position so that he could drive away with ease. As soon as he pulled up, he backed up. When he backed up, there were some girls in the back of the truck that jumped out. Some girls got hurt. But there was one girl that died.
When that happened, i started to scream and cry, and my sister immediately came looking for me and she pulled me aside, away from the scene. She didn’t want me to see what had happened to this young girl. It was like me seeing it and hearing about it for myself for the first time. It brought the reality of what death was all about, and it scared me that a person could die. We don’t live forever.
When I’m hearing all these reports about all these unmarked graves, that hurts. We need to get our story out there.