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Orange Shirt Day adapts to pandemic

(Marisela Amador, The Eastern Door)


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Since 2015, the community has been participating in Orange Shirt Day, an event that honours survivors of the residential school system, by acknowledging their past trauma and the healing of their very deep wounds.

Orange Shirt Day was brought to Kahnawake by Curran Jacobs, Helen Jarvis Montour and June Skye-Stacey.

The history of Orange Shirt Day began with an Indigenous woman from British Colombia, Phyllis Jack-Webstad. Webstad’s grandmother had bought her a bright orange shirt to wear on her first day of school, but when she arrived at the school, she was stripped of her clothes, and she never got her orange shirt back.

Eventually, as part of her healing process, Webstad started Orange Shirt Day.

In Kahnawake this year, the commemoration will be different.

“We do not have orange shirts to give out. Instead, we will have orange facemasks,” said Jarvis Montour, whose father was a residential school survivor.

The orange masks will be distributed to the different schools in the community, although Jarvis Montour stressed that availability is limited.

Organizers started handing out the masks to survivors and their family members last week.

Usually, survivors, community members and the schools would gather at the green space by Orville Standup Memorial Park on September 30, for the ceremony.

This year, the schools will not be attending the gathering, but will have their own commemoration, according to Jacobs, who is the Indigenous resource teacher at the New Frontiers School Board.

“Orange Shirt Day is where you are. Especially because of the COVID-19 this year,” said Jarvis Montour.

Jacobs has been raising awareness for years by doing presentations about the residential school system at different schools in the community and beyond.

“I always organize some kind of gathering and presentation, and this year I am doing it virtually. I am also doing a virtual presentation at the University of Montreal for their Indigenous law students,” said Jacobs.

Those attending the gathering, which starts at 9 a.m., will have to keep two metres apart to respect social distancing guidelines and will be required to wear masks.

The event will start with a tobacco burning ceremony performed by Charlie Patton.

Don Barnaby will sing an honour song, as he has done for the past three years.

“Orange Shirt Day is about people wearing it so that they are spreading the message. At least in that sense, that won’t change this year,” Jacobs.

Orange Shirt Day Kahnawake is a non-profit, run by volunteers, so the organization welcomes all donations.

Tomorrow, volunteers will be giving out orange masks in the parking lot of the Knights of Columbus. A $5 donation will be required, and the masks will be limited to two per person.

“My vision was to turn this thing that happened to our families into a positive, by cherishing the ones we lost and caring for survivors. It is very hard on some of the survivors, while others are feeling a lot better. We have to honour that way,” said Jarvis Montour.


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