Nathan Wilson singing the Coast Salish anthem during the opening of the Orange Shirt Day assembly at Chalmers Elementary. (Grace Kennedy photo)

Nathan Wilson singing the Coast Salish anthem during the opening of the Orange Shirt Day assembly at Chalmers Elementary. (Grace Kennedy photo)

Delta schools remember Indigenous history, suffering on Orange Shirt Day

Chalmers Elementary students learnt about residential schools during their Orange Shirt Day assembly

Sitting in rows in their elementary school gym on Sept. 28, Chalmers’ students waited for the start of their assembly.

It was noisy, as school assemblies often are when students wiggle in their spots on the ground. Grade 7 students sat on the benches at the back of the gym; kindergartners were being herded by teachers into semi-respectable lines.

One young boy with an orange patka ran across the gym. Several rows away, a little girl sat cross-legged in an orange dress. And another little girl in an orange dress. And then a boy with an orange Harley Davidson shirt passed by.

Throughout the gym, students were wearing orange. They were remembering.

It was Orange Shirt Day, a Canada-wide event that commemorates the suffering of Indigenous children and families who were taken into residential schools.

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The idea of Orange Shirt Day began in 2013, with a story from Northern Secwpemc woman Phyllis Webstad. The Williams Lake resident shared her story of having her shiny orange shirt taken away when she began going to the St. Joseph Mission residential school at six-years-old — that story inspired an opportunity for reconciliation.

Now in its sixth year, Orange Shirt Day has made its way across organizations and schools in Canada — including the Delta school district, where many schools held assemblies on the Friday before the official day.

In Chalmers Elementary, the assembly opened with a recognition of the traditional territories of the Tsawwassen First Nation, the Musqueam First Nation and all other nations with unceded land in Delta. Then, Indigenous cultural enhancement facilitator Nathan Wilson came on stage.

An imposing figure, with his bald-head and bushy beard, Wilson spoke gently, sharing stories of hardship for Indigenous people and his own past.

Wilson, 44, is a member of the Tsawwassen First Nation, although his heritage is from the Yukon. He was adopted as a baby by a Musqueam family living in Ladner, and grew up in Delta.

“I remember when I was a kid, people were still in that mindset of Indigenous people weren’t good people,” he said after the assembly. “Now I’m proud to be an Indigenous person, and I can see that in the young ones just now becoming so proud to be Indigenous as well, and showing it too.”

Annabelle Simeon-Smythe and her brother Joseph Smythe Jr. on stage during the Orange Shirt Day assembly at Chalmer's Elementary. Annabelle spoke about her family's experience with residential schools, and the importance of being able to share her culture with others. (Grace Kennedy photo)
Annabelle Simeon-Smythe and her brother Joseph Smythe Jr. on stage during the Orange Shirt Day assembly at Chalmer’s Elementary. Annabelle spoke about her family’s experience with residential schools, and the importance of being able to share her culture with others.

Grace Kennedy photo

Two Chalmers students, Annabelle Simeon-Smythe and Joseph Smythe Jr., took part in the ceremony wearing traditional regalia and read a statement about members of their family who had gone through residential schools. Mikaela Erickson, also a student with Indigenous ancestry, wore Chalmers’ beaded blanket through the assembly, and helped emcee the proceedings.

“It fills my heart,” Wilson said. “It fills my heart to see that.”

Delta’s school system has changed since Wilson was a student in Ladner, he said. More Indigenous perspectives have come into the curriculum. As a cultural enhancement facilitator, he is part of some of them, teaching about Coast Salish culture and giving lacrosse lessons.

When it comes to residential schools, a key topic for Orange Shirt Day, Chalmers students Delainey Turner, Kara Lloyd and Neelum Sidhu said they hadn’t learned much in class — a lesson and art project here, a cultural activity there. But all said that Orange Shirt Day provided them with something more to think about when it came to Canada’s history with Indigenous people.

Nathan Wilson's lacrosse stick, used in a residential school near Lytton, B.C. (Grace Kennedy photo)
Nathan Wilson’s lacrosse stick, used in a residential school near Lytton, B.C.

Grace Kennedy photo

“It’s a reminder not to make the same mistakes that the people before us made,” Kara, 11, said about the day.

Neelum agreed. “I think that its to apologize to people who were taken from their families and forced to go to residential schools,” she said.

“It’s important to wear orange to show them that we care and we think it’s important,” Delainey added.

For an hour in the middle the day, students and staff took time to remember some of the difficult history in Canada’s past. It was a step in the right direction to reconciliation, Indigenous youth care worker Courtney Nash said after the ceremony.

But, Wilson said that more could still be done.

“I would like to see [Orange Shirt Day] honoured and recognized a little bit more than in the schools,” he said.

“Everybody wears a poppy for Remembrance Day. It’d be really nice to have more of a recognition like that, and people just having the little bit of admittance that it actually did happen and it was a bad thing.”



grace.kennedy@northdeltareporter.com

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Mikaela Erickson, a student with Indigenous ancestry at Chalmers Elementary, wearing the school’s beaded blanket during the Orange Shirt Day assembly. (Grace Kennedy photo)

Mikaela Erickson, a student with Indigenous ancestry at Chalmers Elementary, wearing the school’s beaded blanket during the Orange Shirt Day assembly. (Grace Kennedy photo)