By Vivian Collings
National Day for Truth and Reconciliation was on Saturday.
It’s also known as Orange Shirt Day, a time to wear the vibrant colour to honour Indigenous children who never came home safe from Residential School and the Survivors, their communities, and culture that were forever changed by it.
In Haliburton County, we all know about Residential School from what we’ve learned – from the media, books, school.
We know some the horrible stories.
But it inevitably always felt like a distant concept.
Though the Highlands are situated on the traditional territory of the Anishinaabeg, the population of Indigenous people here is small.
The closest Reserve is about an hour away. The closest Residential Schools were a couple of hours away.
I learned about them in school. We watched dramatizations. But again, it was a distant concept I had a hard time grasping. The horrors were a little easier to forget about when we don’t see them first-hand.
“Thank goodness this didn’t happen in ‘our’ backyard.”
But my mindset was changed this past spring when I traveled to Vancouver Island to visit family.
They live in a small town three hours north of any city, only accessible by one main road.
From their little town, you can take a ferry to two smaller islands between Vancouver Island and the mainland.
One is a reserve, and Indigenous people make up over half of the population.
Now, I’ve been to this island quite a few times. It has a really beautiful cultural centre located in a building where Potlatches had been held for centuries.
I guess I could blame it on my young ignorance then, but in the past, I would look at the artifacts, take photos of the totem poles outside, and we’d get back on the ferry and head home. Back to my comfortable life. “Out of sight, out of mind.” Ignorance.
When I went back this year, though, I willed my ignorance away. Or should I say, the island willed it away.
As we drove off the ferry and approached the cultural centre, a huge structure in the shape of a t-shirt loomed on the hill, painted orange.
My stomach churned.
The big orange shirt was located exactly where that Residential School used to be.
Suddenly, that once distant concept was staring me in the face.
The cultural centre was just as heartbreaking. Room upon room outlined the history of colonialism on that little island.
The tour of the centre finishes with the Potlatch room, a space dedicated to their most sacred ceremonies.
From 1884 to 1851, Potlatches were illegal. Celebrating Indigenous culture was against the law.
Assimilation was written on the walls of that school, too. That one and over 100 others.
I picked up a book from that cultural centre about that particular “school” and read it in one night, as I looked out across the ocean towards that little island where hundreds of kids were held as prisoners.
There’s not enough space to write about the horrors within that book and within the Truth and Reconciliation reports.
But after standing on the same dirt as those little kids, looking up at the big orange shirt, I can assure you that the “distant concept” is all too real.
As settlers living in Canada, this did happen in “our” backyard.
Every. Child. Matters. On this National Day for Truth and Reconciliation and everyday.