Josie McGregor gets emotional discussing the years she spent as number 38 at the Spanish, Ontario, residential school she attended – the hellhole, she calls it.
“I was a number, not a name,” she said. “I hate that number.”
When McGregor finished residential school after more than 11 years, the authorities didn’t know where to send her, she said. “I had no mother, no father. I didn’t know where I was going. The people that sent us there, when they’d go check up on us, nobody cared. What the hell, we’re just Indians. Nobody cared,” she said.
McGregor was not the only child in her family to be taken to the schools – all six of them went. They all survived, but today she is the last residential school survivor in her family.
Orange Shirt Day in Kahnawake, which honours those who came home and those who didn’t, is not easy for her. It dredges up memories she doesn’t want to think about. But every September 30, there’s nowhere she’d rather be than wrapped in the love and support of her community at the annual event.
“I come because it means something to me,” she said.
What does it mean to her? She pauses. “I made it,” she said.
McGregor is one of a handful of residential school survivors who attended the Orange Shirt Day event in Kahnawake on September 30 at the green space next to the Golden Age Club. The event has run since 2015 in Kahnawake, but the past three years, ceremony and sombre speeches have been followed by a festive atmosphere in the style of a birthday party.
“Everybody comes together, which is great,” said McGregor. “They don’t pity you. They just say it’s so nice to see you. It’s nice.”
Co-organizer Helen Jarvis Montour has said the change in the event’s tone is inspired by a desire to give survivors the birthday parties they were denied as children.
“We try to do that now, celebrating their lives and their resilience,” said Montour, who organizes the event alongside Curran Jacobs and June Skye-Stacey. The festivities include gifts for survivors and a large cake garnished with an orange heart.
“We try to do whatever to make things better.”
She added that although September 30 has been recognized by the federal government as the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation since 2021, it should remain Orange Shirt Day first and foremost.
The day takes its name from the story of Phyllis Webstad, who as a six-year-old at the St. Joseph Mission Residential School was forced on the first day to give up her orange shirt, a gift from her grandmother.
“It’s Orange Shirt Day before Truth and Reconciliation, and people need to start addressing it that way,” Montour said, adding she plans to circulate this message around local organizations.
The morning began with a tobacco burning ceremony, which was performed by Don Barnaby, who is Mi’kmaq. He deferred to respected local elders, he said, in accepting the honour. “For them to even ask me that was emotional for me,” he said, noting it was understood he would be doing it the way he was taught. He sang honour songs and spoke emotionally of his experience as a Sixties Scoop survivor and about how his own mother was hurt by the residential school system.
Residential school survivor Kakaionstha Deer spoke as well, telling Kahnawa’kehró:non how important her older sister Ida was when the two were sent to residential school in Spanish, Ontario. “Thank you all for coming to Orange Shirt Day for remembering us, and thinking about us, and honouring us and all those that are still with us. I thank you,” she said.
Attendees listened to a recording of The Crying Bench, a poem written by Deer in 2010 and set to music by her son Donnie Brisebois. “This was the story of my life in the form of a poem,” she said.
A committee of Kahnawa’kehró:non announced plans at the event to establish a permanent memorial in the green space, including a healing garden.
“It felt good that now it’s finally out. Now it’s just work hard to get it done,” said Tammy Whitebean, one of the members of the committee.
According to Whitebean, survivors have requested that no names or pictures be included. The group hopes to begin fundraising soon to have a memorial built within two or three years.
“I really think it would be good,” said community member Gayla Montour about the news.
Gayla, who attends the event to show survivors they are supported, said it should be a priority to teach upcoming generations about the legacy of residential schools. “The young children, some of them are so young they don’t understand it,” she said.
While the event is separate from the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK), multiple MCK chiefs attended the event, including MCK chief Arnold Boyer, whose parents Ronald and Sheila Boyer met while at the residential schools in Spanish, Ontario.
“I think it’s good to come out and honour the survivors that came out of those residential schools. This is for the children that never came home,” he said.
“We’re grateful that my parents and other community members, they came home safely.”
Curran noted how much more aware people are about the legacy of residential schools than they used to be.
“Orange Shirt Day, when it first started, I was just starting to learn about it,” she said. “I didn’t realize people I knew were survivors of residential schools because we didn’t talk about it in our community. It’s really important that we continue to have them here and uplift them. There’s kids here, and I don’t want them to ever not know their history. I don’t want them to see people and not realize – like Kakaionstha, her resilience is why we’re still here going strong.”
McGregor feels a shift in the recognition of survivors in recent years, and she hopes it means there will never again be a child who goes through what she went through in Spanish, Ontario.
“One thing for sure,” she said, “I’ll never forgive and never forget.”
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.