M’CHIGEENG— The Noojmowin Teg Health Centre hosted a Celebration of Life event last week at the Anishinaabemowin Gamig Elder’s Centre for Indian Residential School (IRS) survivors.

As part of the celebration, individuals at the various tables took turns taking layers of wrapping paper off presents using oven mitts. The winner (the person who takes off the last layer) not only received the gift inside but also the mitts!
As part of the celebration, individuals at the various tables took turns taking layers of wrapping paper off presents using oven mitts. The winner (the person who takes off the last layer) not only received the gift inside but also the mitts!

Survivors from across Manitoulin were invited to attend along with friends, family and Island residents who wanted to show their support.

The event was held on Wednesday, September 30, Orange Shirt Day, and everyone in attendance was asked to wear orange to show their support for IRS survivors and their families. There was even an orange shirt decorating station at the Celebration of Life to support the initiative.

Wednesday’s celebration started with welcoming remarks and an honour song from Geraldine McGregor, followed by an opening thanksgiving prayer from Roberta Oshkawbewisens.

M’Chigeeng Chief Linda Debassige welcomed the group in attendance for the event and wished the survivors a Happy Birthday.

“My generation did not face the same adversity as you did, but we are still feeling the affects today,” said Chief Debassige. “The damage to people is like a spiderweb, weaved throughout our lives. We will not be able to change what happened this year or next, but we can start working towards revitalizing what was taken away from us; our culture and our language. Despite the government’s efforts, they weren’t able to beat the Indian out of us.”

Survivors were invited to choose a take-home gift at the end of the celebration event.
Survivors were invited to choose a take-home gift at the end of the celebration event.

“I am honoured by your strength and tenacity,” continued Chief Debassige. “You all persevered. The responsibility has been given to my generation to assure this never happens again and to fight for the call to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It (residential schools) was a different type of war, but one we still feel the effects of today.”

Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing NDP candidate Carol Hughes was also on hand to bring greetings from herself and MPP Mike Mantha.

“I came here today to listen and to learn,” said Ms. Hughes. “Thank you to the organizers of the event for bringing clarity and brightness to a dark part of our history. No child should ever have to go through what you did. For those who didn’t come back, I am truly sorry. I don’t know if anything can every fully repair what happened, but I think it is important to try and learn what was a very negative experience.”

After a break where guests were invited to offer medicines to the sacred fire, everyone was invited to participate in a number of activities. The activities included making birthday cards (as IRS did not celebrate students’ birthdays) and a musical gift game.

The history of the Orange Shirt Day was shared with the group as they made birthday cards.

Phyllis Webstand of Dog Creek, BC went to an IRS for a year after just turning six-years-old. Her family had little money, but her grandmother managed to buy her a new outfit to go to the IRS in, a shiny orange shirt. When she arrived at the school she was stripped and her clothing was taken away, including the orange shirt, and she never saw it again, except on other students. Since the incident the colour orange reminded her of her feelings and how when her shirt was taken away she felt worthless and insignificant, a feeling that she carried with her throughout her life after IRS.

Marie Kagesheongai of Aundeck Omni Kaning signs a birthday card for one of the seven Island First Nations.
Marie Kagesheongai of Aundeck Omni Kaning signs a birthday card for one of the seven Island First Nations.

Ms. Webstand’s orange shirt has since become a symbol of the many losses experienced by those sent to IRS over several generations and the loss of family, culture, language, freedom, parenting, self-esteem and worth.

Grace Fox shared the impact IRS had on her. She said that it had more of an impact than she realized and that she learned a lot of things from IRS.

“I wake up, air out my sheets and open the window,” Ms. Fox said of what she was taught at IRS. “I raised my kids the same as IRS taught me; do what you are told right away or suffer the consequence. I have six children and they are all very obedient and respectful, but I think I went way overboard because of how I was treated, I don’t remember being physically beaten, but there where psychological effects—they took all the spirit and self respect out of you.”

“I managed to retain my language, but I was never one to do what I was told,” said Ms. Fox. “We found corners to speak in, rocks to hind behind on walks and as a result I still speak my language.”

“We survived,” added Ms. Fox. “We need to continue to advocate and keep it (the Truth and Reconciliation Commission call to action) on the radar.”

After a lovely lunch, complete with a birthday cake, individuals continued to work on their cards and share their experiences at IRS.

“My language tells you that I am assimilated,” an IRS survivor spoke. “I learned the language (at IRS), but I learned a lot of negative things there too such as discrimination and racism just because my skin was a little darker.”

“I was IRS student No. 173,” said another speaker. “Me and my little sisters went. I remember being yelled at, asked if I had wet the bed because I had spilt something, but I didn’t understand the language and I was hit. They gave mixed messages. They said we were made in the image of God, but then hurt us for being different.”

“My auntie was 13-years-old when she got pregnant from someone at IRS and fell and lost the baby and her life,” shared another speaker. “Our family wasn’t allowed to have the funeral at our church. If effect my life, through my mom; she had a lot of sadness and grief through what happened to her sister.”

The afternoon concluded with visiting and gifts for each of the IRS survivors.

Indian Residential School survivors at the Celebration of Life held last week at the Anishinaabemowin Gamig Elder’s Centre in M’Chigeeng pose for a group photo wearing orange t-shirts in support of Orange Shirt Day. photo by Robin Burridge
Indian Residential School survivors at the Celebration of Life held last week at the Anishinaabemowin Gamig Elder’s Centre in M’Chigeeng pose for a group photo wearing orange t-shirts in support of Orange Shirt Day.
photo by Robin Burridge

Event organizer Agnes Kanasawe, Noojmowin Teg Health Centre resolution health support worker (IRS), explained that she wanted to organize a Celebration of Life for IRS survivors after learning through working with many of the survivors on the Island that they never got to celebrate their birthdays growing up at IRS.

“I looked online and saw what other areas were doing for September 30  (Orange Shirt Day) and decided to hold a Celebration of Life/Birthday Party,” said Ms. Kanasawe, who noted that she was very pleased with the turnout and how the day went.