By Marsha Smoke, Anishinaabe, Mississauga Nation
Sitting in the kitchen at Elizabeth (Liz) Ozawamick’s residence in Hastings reminded me of the days when friends and relatives would drop by our family home in Baltimore when we were growing up. We would share a cup of tea, there was much laughter and listening to stories of days gone by.
Today was no different. It was like stepping back 40+ years in time listening to Number 19 and Number 47 talk about their time at Indian Residential School. Number 47 began to speak about that time in his life but quickly expressed how he still has a hard time talking about it. Number 19 spoke of how her siblings tried to prepare her for residential school.
When you get there, you will be asked questions and then they will give you a number. Number 19 is Shirley Williams from the Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve, Manitoulin Island. She was ten years old when she was taken to residential school. Number 47 is Stephen Pashagumskum from Chisasibi, James Bay, Quebec, he was six years old and attended three residential schools.
Their names, their families, their clothing, their language, their culture, anything they brought with them including keepsakes from their parents were stripped from them. Any familiarity with their former young lives was gone. They were alone. As Dr. Williams recalled, you had to keep reminding yourself, this is only for a time, we have to endure and we will survive.
Both former students live in Northumberland County. Dr. Shirley Williams is Ojibway and Odawa and lives in Hastings. She holds the title Professor Emeritus at Trent University, the Chanie Wenjack School for Indigenous Studies. Stephen Pashagumskum is Cree from Eeyou Istchee, in northern Quebec and resides at the Alderville First Nation with his spouse and family members. He is a graduate of Trent and Nipissing Universities and is a retired Educator (History) and entrepreneur.
Orange Shirt Day is a day to honour the former students from the Indian residential school system. It is also a memorial to those students who have since passed onto the Spirit World. We especially remember the children who lost their lives while attending school and are lying somewhere in unmarked graves across Canada.
Orange Shirt Day also brings an opportunity to recognize the families, the spouses and children, those who experience the intergenerational affects of the trauma of Indian Residential Schools.
The narratives of Indian Residential Schools belong to the former students who are the real survivors. They are also the ones who knew the students who did not survive and carry a voice for the ones who use to occupy that suddenly empty desk in class.
I asked Stephen Pashagumskum what his message is to share with others. He stated how important it is to know the history of each group of people. If you don’t know each other, there is fear. If we take the time to learn about each other, reconciliation can begin.
Shirley Williams expressed how difficult and embarrassing it must be for Canadians when we bring an awareness of what was done to destroy a human being. Residential schools is a part of history in Canada. Young people need to learn the true history to make it better for generations yet to come.
Every Child Matters