We arrived in Saskatoon on September 30th the day Canada celebrated its first National Reconciliation Day. It’s a new federal statutory holiday honoring Indigenous children who were part of the residential school system.
We are staying with our children and grandchildren in Saskatoon and my grandsons told me all about the way the new holiday was marked at their school.
They had a whole school assembly on the playground. Their music teacher sang O Canada in Cree to start the assembly and then a grade three class told the story of Phyllis Webstad who is from the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation.
In 1973 six-year-old Phyllis was excited about her first day at St. Joseph’s Residential School in Williams Lake, B.C. Her grandmother had bought her a new, bright orange shirt for the occasion. But when she arrived at the school, the staff cut her hair and she was forced to change into different clothes. Her new shirt was taken away, and she never got it back.
I must admit I had never heard Phyllis’ story before and didn’t realize that’s why orange shirts are worn to commemorate what happened to Indigenous children at residential schools. My nine-year-old grandson did an excellent job of relaying the story to me and then told me that after they heard the story in their assembly the whole school sang a song in Cree that their music teacher had taught to every class.
Each child in the school was given a stone to paint. My older grandson said he painted a feather on his stone and printed the words Every Child Matters. My younger grandson who is just five and in kindergarten said he made a big red heart on his stone. The stones were placed under the school’s friendship bench.
I hadn’t heard of friendship benches but my grandsons explained it is a special bench on their school playground where kids can go if they are feeling lonely or sad. They sit on the bench and then other kids will come over to talk or invite them to play.
My younger grandson told me after the school assembly his kindergarten teacher read them a special book called Stolen Words. My grandson related the entire story to me in great detail. It is about a little girl who helps her grandfather reclaim the Cree words he lost at residential school when he wasn’t allowed to speak his own language. Later I found nearly a dozen read-aloud versions of the book on YouTube. I had never heard the story before but want to buy my own copy of the book now.
I didn’t learn anything about Indigenous culture or history, or the need for reconciliation when I was in elementary school. I am glad my grandchildren are having a very different experience. I think it is wonderful they are passing on their knowledge to those of us in the older generation who need to learn the same lessons but didn’t have the opportunity to do so as children.