Survivors shine a light on residential schools for Orange Shirt Day

Hundreds of schoolchildren gathered at the former site of a residential school in Mission, B.C., on Friday to honour survivors and hear their stories.

The march through Fraser River Heritage Park, once home to St. Mary's Indian Residential School, marked Orange Shirt Day. The event honours Phyllis Jack Webstad, a Stswecem'c Xgat'tem First Nation elder who was stripped of a new orange shirt that she loved on her first day in a residential school.

In Mission, survivors told a crowd of 800 students about the abuse and humiliation they experienced in residential schools, as well as the hope they felt seeing so many children honour their experiences.

Joseph Ginger spent four years at St. Mary's and another eight at a residential school on Vancouver Island.

He told CBC News that he became physically ill the first time he returned to the former school site in Mission and avoided the park for many years after.

Now, he welcomes the chance to revisit the past and educate young people about a long, dark chapter of Canadian history that used to be hidden.

"I connect with the children, tell my story. I feel [their] empathy. I do it because I think I speak for other people in my family that are unable to get up and say what happened to them ... and the children that never made it out of these schools," Ginger said.

"I like to share with the youth that they shine some light on our way of life, and if they continue to do so, it'll make everything much better in the educational system for Aboriginal peoples."

Survivors' stories are key

The details of what happened in Canada's residential school system can be grim, but survivors' stories are the key to teaching them to children, according to Vivian Searwar, vice principal at Mission's Hatzic Elementary School.

"There are so many books that you can access these days that have been written by residential school survivors — picture books and novels — and I think that's the way to help our students understand," she said.

Orange Shirt Day officially falls on Saturday, and events will be held across Canada to mark the occasion.

With files from Jesse Johnston

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting