When Ruth Loft came home from the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School in the early 1960s, she felt like she didn’t fit in, like her own community didn’t understand her.
On September 30, surrounded by the love and support of Kahnawa’kehró:non wrapped in orange, she said things have changed for survivors like her.
“It makes me feel great to know that we’re not alone anymore,” said Loft.
The annual Orange Shirt Day event in the field between the Golden Age Club and Orville Standup Memorial Park has become a staple in Kahnawake since it was first held in 2015. This year’s September 30 event was no exception as dozens of community members gathered to acknowledge and celebrate residential school survivors.
“People have things to say, and this is the place to do it,” said co-organizer Helen Jarvis Montour. “We have our sacred fire. We have our tobacco. The circle is surrounded with love, so they can say what they want, and it helps them with the healing.”
Later on, upbeat music boomed as families posed at a balloon-festooned photo booth set up in front of the Every Child Matters fire engine. Survivors received traditional dolls as gifts, and a birthday cake was cut in their honour.
“If they were away, they didn’t get gifts. They didn’t get presents, cake, or acknowledgment for their birthdays. They were just like numbers, that’s it,” said Jarvis Montour.
In addition to survivors, the event was attended by some of the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of those who went to residential schools.
Jarvis Montour herself is motivated in part by her sorrow about her father’s experience at residential school. “I wanted to do this in honour of him, in honour of him and the things he never had,” she said.
“Being here with the community, showing love and support for one another, I think is a very important thing that we’re going to continue to do annually on this day,” said Mohawk Council of Kahnawake grand chief Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer, who attended the community event before speaking in Montreal in the afternoon.
“We still have community members, elders that are survivors here in the community that went to residential school,” she said, adding how important it is to teach children about the significance of Orange Shirt Day.
Kakaionstha Deer, a community elder and residential school survivor spoke at the event about her own journey back home after being sent to the Spanish residential school alongside her sister.
“I was nothing but skin and bones,” Deer said. Her sister worked in the chicken coop and fared a little better by sneaking chicken feed, she added.
After two years, Deer’s mother came to see the girls at the school. She was appalled when she saw them and soon demanded they be sent home to her. But it was a long, drawn-out fight before Deer and her sister were finally released to their mother.
“Coming home was the most beautiful gift I ever got,” said Deer.
She recalls feeling shy around her own mother when she returned, however. “It took me many, many years to finally begin to trust her not to send us back there again,” she said.
Ronald Boyer attended the St. Charles Garnier residential school in Spanish, Ontario, where he met his wife, Sheila Boyer (née Paul), who attended the St. Joseph’s residential school for girls in the same town. The two celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary on September 14.
Boyer remembers his experience more positively than some others do. He feels the time he spent there prepared him to become a leader. He went on to serve as the president of an ironworkers union in Montreal; oversaw the construction of what are now the Kahnawake Youth Center and Kateri Hall; and helped fundraise for the St. Francis-Xavier Mission with Monday night bingo.
He became an ordained deacon in 1987 after he and his wife attended courses at the Anishinabe Spiritual Centre. He remembers older boys taunting and harassing younger ones while at residential school, and he would sometimes get in trouble with faculty for defending them.
“I wasn’t a trained boxer, but I knew how to look after myself and to look after the underdogs,” he said.
He recalls one time when his younger brother was attacked by an older boy. Boyer took matters into his own hands and was disciplined for it.
“I went in, and I got my hands warmed up,” Boyer said of his punishment. His hands hurt enough that he had trouble writing in study hall afterwards. Before bed, he went to find the disciplinarian and explained his point of view.
“I said, ‘father, I’m going to keep on protecting the younger boys from being bullied by the older boys!” he said. He added that he has no regrets for protecting those who were bullied.
Loft, whose residential school was in Nova Scotia, remembers children crying out at night, yearning to go back to their homes, to their communities. She remembers the pain of being unable to comfort them – for she was in the same boat.
“It was almost like being in jail in a way – nuns telling you what to do every single day, watching you, everything you do,” she said.
“What really bothered me part in a question-and-answer session at McGill University. To open the discussions, she brings a video recording with her; it would be too difficult to speak her story most was missing my parents,” she said. “I was wishing that my parents would hug me and kiss me and hold me like other children, but here I was in an institution, and I was denied all that.”
She tried to be strong, willing herself through another year over and over until she finally went home for good at age 12.
Loft decided to speak at the Kahnawake event for the first time on Friday, but it was not her first time sharing her experience with others. Each year, she takes out loud each time.
The recording was taken in Nova Scotia at a gathering related to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Loft was asked whether she wanted to speak publicly or in private.
“I said, ‘oh no, me, I’m not speaking privately. I’m speaking publicly. I want the whole world to hear what I went through.’”
When she got on stage to share her experience for the first time, however, she felt nervous. It was her first time ever sharing her residential school experience with an audience.
“I looked down, and I saw the speaker and all the people, and I’m on video,” she said. “I said ‘I don’t know; I might change my mind now.’ But I did it. I was as calm as can be.”
Marcus is managing editor of The Eastern Door, where he has been reporting since 2021 on issues that matter to Kahnawake and Kanesatake. He was previously editor-in-chief of The Link and a contributing editor at Our Canada magazine.