TIMMINS – Among a group of 90 people marching on Friday in honour of those who attended the residential school system was Nicole Spence.
The Timmins woman attended St. Anne’s Residential School in Fort Albany during her youth in the 1960s and 1970s.
Residential schools were government-sponsored boarding schools established to assimilate Aboriginal children into Euro-Canadian culture.
It is a system that has since been universally condemned for removing Indigenous children from their families, depriving them of their ancestral languages, and exposing many of them to physical and sexual abuse.
“It’s really important to make people aware because there is still a lot of people don’t know what residential schools were,” said Spence. “I have come across some people who are shocked about the stuff that went on.”
Timmins Native Friendship Centre hosted its second-annual Orange Shirt Day march. Led by a police escort, the marchers walked from the TNFC on Kirby Street, south on Pine Street, west on Kimberley, north on Mountjoy to Kirby and back to the centre.
The vast majority of the participants wore orange T-shirts, emblazoned on the front with the words, “Every child matters.”
Heather Murray, healing and wellness coordinator at the centre, explained Orange Shirt Day is an annual event held nationwide and inspired by the experiences of residential school survivor Phyllis Webstad.
Webstad attended St. Joseph’s Residential School in Williams Lake, B.C.
The story goes that an orange sweater given to Webstad to wear on her first day at St. Joseph’s was taken away and given to somebody else.
“She really loved and cherished that sweater but when she went to residential school, they had taken that sweater from her and that was her only connection with home,” said Murray.
“She always wondered why she didn’t get her shirt back and she felt like she never mattered, and that stayed with her for many years.
“So this is in honour of her and all the other residential school survivors, and letting people know every child matters.”
On Sept. 30, 2013, Webstad organized the first Orange Shirt Day in Williams Lake to acknowledge the harm that Canada’s residential school system left on generations of Indigenous families. This has since sparked an annual recognition held each Sept. 30 nationwide to honour those who attended residential schools.
Murray said it is also important for people going forward to remember the harm that was caused by the residential school system.
“If there is not knowledge and people … who are aware of these things, then they will continue to happen. So it’s to bring that awareness so it won’t happen again.”