Manitoba to close schools for Orange Shirt Day

·3 min read

Public school classes will be cancelled on the last day of September so students and staff can observe Canada’s inaugural National Day for Truth and Reconciliation and reflect on the ongoing legacy of residential schools.

The Education Department sent a letter to superintendents and independent school principals Friday to confirm schools will be closed Sept. 30, a date formerly recognized as Orange Shirt Day.

“It’s only been in the last decade that things have come to light in terms of real action and true stories being highlighted,” said Mary Courchene, a longtime educator and elder from Sagkeeng First Nation, who attended Fort Alexander Residential School.

“It was a secret for so long — over 150 years.”

Three generations of children in Courchene’s family were forcibly taken from their homes to go to a school set up to shame and dispossess Indigenous youth of their cultural identity. Her children also attended day school.

Public commemoration of the history of residential schools is “a vital component of the reconciliation process,” the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada wrote.

Call to action No. 80 in the TRC’s final report asked the federal government to establish a statutory holiday to honour survivors, their families and communities.

Since 2017, Manitoba has formally acknowledged Orange Shirt Day at the end of September to recognize the harms caused by the residential school system and affirm a commitment to ensure all children’s lives are protected and valued. The colour is of significance because Phyllis Webstad, who is credited for creating the movement, was stripped of the orange shirt her grandmother bought her when she went to an assimilative school.

In the spring — as the country grappled with the tragic findings of hundreds of unmarked graves on former residential school sites — the House of Commons unanimously passed legislation to recognize Sept. 30 as a national day of commemoration.

In late May, more than 200 potential burial sites were identified near a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C. The discovery prompted other Indigenous communities across the country to start their own searches to confirm what had long been suspected.

Indigenous Reconciliation Minister Alan Lagimodiere officially announced Friday that Manitoba would be recognizing the new day of observance.

In addition to school closures, non-essential government services and offices will be shuttered. Flags on all provincial government buildings will also be lowered to half-mast for the day.

Lagimodiere said Manitoba is supporting several Indigenous-led events throughout this month to provide the public with opportunities to listen to and learn from First Nations, Métis and Inuit stories.

In years past, Courchene, an elder-in-residence at Seven Oaks School Division, has visited schools to talk about her lived experience. She is currently planning her schedule for 2021-22.

“We won’t be finished talking until all our truth is out,” she said.

Katherine Legrange, director of 60s Scoop Legacy of Canada, issued a statement Friday to encourage all Manitobans to spend Sept. 30 learning about residential schools, day schools and ‘60s Scoop policies.

Also Friday, Manitoba NDP Leader Wab Kinew gave thanks to all the survivors who advocated for the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation to be recognized as a provincial holiday. Kinew introduced a bill to recognize Orange Shirt Day in 2017.

He added, “Now it’s time for the PC government to implement all of the TRC calls to action so we can move forward together.”

The commission’s calls include requests to establish a mandate of age-appropriate curriculum on residential schools in K-12; fund teachers’ colleges to provide training on integrating Indigenous knowledge and create senior-level positions in government dedicated to Indigenous content in education.

Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press

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