More than a thousand Calgarians gathered on an emotional Orange Shirt Day at Fort Calgary to hear the stories of survivors, and to reflect on the Indigenous children lost at the nation’s residential schools.
The commemoration marked the second year that the City of Calgary has commemorated Orange Shirt Day at Fort Calgary.
Members of the Calgary Fire Department, including Fire Chief Steve Dongworth, and officers from the Calgary Police Service raised the fire department’s orange banner pre-ceremonies—continuing to ensure that the 2,879 names recognized by the Truth and Reconciliation Memorial Register remained front and centre throughout the event.
Elder Wanda First Rider was one the Indigenous Elders that spoke during the ceremonies. She imparted upon those gathered the traumas inflicted upon her and other Indigenous children at residential schools.
“I just want to encourage people to continue to learn about what’s happened to us historically, to do some more research on Orange Shirt Day, and to also bring about Truth and Reconciliation,” First Rider said.
“We need to all Canadians to learn more about what has happened to us historically, and we need to move forward as Indigenous people, but we need to move forward with everyone with all Canadians—and in order to do that, we need to continue to learn to educate each other to be kind to one another, and in that way we can move forward in a healthy manner.”
First Rider was one of a number of Elders who spoke at the event. She thanked the T7 Drummers and student dancers from the Calgary Board of Education and Calgary Catholic School District who performed during the commemoration ceremonies.
“I want to recognize all residential school survivors, and I want to recognize the ones that didn’t make it home,” she said.
“Those names on the flag behind us here is very significant to to myself being a residential school survivor.”
Members of Alberta’s Metis communities also performed traditional jig dances and fiddling at the ceremony, reflecting on their shared experience in the city.
The commemorations ended with a traditional round dance beneath the orange banner.
Elder First Rider described the residential school experience as a devastating one.
“One of the things that I experienced was being punished for speaking Blackfoot, and because of that experience growing up, I didn’t speak very much,” she said.
“Because my language was forcefully taken away from me, I didn’t know who I was and I didn’t know how to express myself.”
She spoke about the deep hurt and abuse, physical and sexual that was inflicted upon students at her residential school. First Rider described the way that she was alienated from her parents from the brief times she was allowed to return home during the summers. She recalled the deprivation of food and water inflicted upon children by school administrators.
Hers was an experience echoed by Elder Clement Leather, who provided the opening prayers and songs for survivors and those lost at the event. Elder Leather was forced to learn English, alongside French and the liturgical language of Latin used by the Catholic Church. He was prevented from using his own.
“We’re told not to talk our native language,” Leather said.
“Today, sometimes when I’m going to talk, like today, I’m kind of afraid to talk—I might say the wrong word.”
Elder First Rider said that Canadians have yet to truly understand the stories being told from residential school survivors.
“I think far too often is one of the speakers said… we see the effects of residential school, we see the effects of colonization by our homeless people, we see that in the addictions that we’re faced with on a daily basis from our young people, and far too often people don’t understand why those exist,” she said.
Greater emphasis on Elders, less on politicians in 2022
Harold Horsefall, issue strategist with the Indigenous Relations Office at the City of Calgary, said that it was important to create a space where uncomfortable conversations could occur.
“We did have a really good turnout, and some of the subject matter I think can be challenging for an audience, but I think that’s part of why we have this,” he said.
“It is an uncomfortable space sometimes for some people to want to engage in conversation, but it’s important nonetheless, so I felt that it went it went really well.”
He said that the main takeaway was that people think about reconciliation, and that they remember the children who died.
“It’s a big topic to think about—justice, and what would justice be—and I hope that’s what people are thinking about,” Horsefall said.
“What would they want if it was their children or where if they saw or if they knew of somebody who was involved. There’s been no criminal charges, nothing of the sort, so I really think that people should think about that critically.”
He said that this year the Orange Shirt Day committee wanted to shift the emphasis away from political figures and on to survivors. Horsefall said that this was a much more powerful way of sharing the experience with Calgarians.
Mayor Jyoti Gondek was the only politician to speak at the event, although it was well attended by members of Calgary City Council, MLAs and government ministers, and Members of Parliament in the audience.
“It definitely is way more powerful coming from someone with lived experience every time,” said Horsefall.
“It is fundamental to the importance of the message that it come from the people with the lived experience.”