Orange Shirt Day will be held again this year to honour residential school survivors, but in Port Alberni the event has adjusted to follow COVID-19 restrictions.
On Sept. 30 the usual gatherings will not be held, instead a group of less than a dozen people will begin a walk from the Quu’asa office on Redford Street across Fourth Avenue, passing the Port Alberni Friendship Center to finish at the Harbour Quay.
“We were trying to be creative as to what we can do - still being in this pandemic - and being able to acknowledge and honour our survivors,” said Vina Robinson, manager of Teechuktl Mental Health, whose staff will be handing out packages containing a cedar branch and devils club to ward off bad spirits during the walk.
Packages will also be delivered to elders at Tsawaayuus Rainbow Gardens and other locations.
“We’re not going to be able to do the gathering at Maht Mahs because of the restrictions, so we’re just going to try and cover as much ground as we can this year,” said Richard Watts, a resolution health support worker with Teechuktl, who will be making the deliveries.
Since it was introduced in 2013, Orange Shirt Day has become a national event to recognise those who attended Indian residential schools. The movement is inspired by the story of Phyllis Jack Webstab, who had an orange shirt taken away from her on the first day at the St. Joseph Indian Residential School near Williams Lake, B.C. The brand-new shirt had just been given to the six year old by her grandmother.
In Port Alberni the Orange Shirt Day walk will be led by Kelly Sport, who attended the Alberni Indian Residential School from 1954-61. He recalls the drab attire students were required to wear at the time: denim pants, a grey top and half boots.
“They wanted to make us look like one,” he said of the uniform.
Sport figures that if the coronavirus were present 60 years ago, it would have had a devastating effect on students at the residential school, where bunk beds were within inches of each other.
“When we were in that school, we were sardined,” recalled Sport.
Sport spent the first few years of his life at the coastal Ditidaht village of Clo-oose, before moving to the Sarita River to be with his father.
He recalls the first day at the Alberni institution, when he was six and didn’t speak English. He can still hear the sounds of his lone footsteps echoing through the school’s hallway.
“The first thing that hit me was the loneliness,” said Sport. “There’s an expanse ahead of you, and it’s all foreign.”
Sport recalls that the federally mandated residential school policy also had a strange effect on his family members back home. He remembers them ceasing to speak their Nuu-chah-nulth dialect in his presence while he stayed there in the summers.
“They always did at home, but as soon as they saw us coming they would revert to English,” he said.
Each September a boat would reach Sarita Bay to bring the children back to residential school.
“At the end of summer, you knew where you were going, and you’re crying all the way up that ladder, because you knew what’s in for you for the next 10 months,” said Sport.
By puberty, Sport left the school to live with his aunt on the Tseshaht reserve. At this time he was no longer able to speak his ancestral language.
“By the time I got out in Grade 7 it was gone,” said Sport. “I could understand it, but to put a sentence together is very difficult for me.”
He attended public schools, but years of lining up and being forced to conform left a lifelong mark on the man, who is now an elected councillor with the Ditidaht First Nation.
“When I got out of that school my attitude was terrible,” said Sport. “Anything to do with authority, I just told them where to go.”
“I became who I am, partly because of that school, and partly because of me rebelling against that school,” he reflected. “It did help me - if I’m doing something - to stay the course right until the end.”
This year’s Orange Shirt Day walk begins at the Redford Street Quu’asa office at 10 a.m., where a handful of staff wearing masks will continue down Fourth Avenue to finish at the Harbour Quay with songs and drumming.