MASSENA — Massena Central High School was awash with orange last week for a special day.
Principal Alan Oliver said Orange Shirt Day — marked annually in Canada as the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on Sept. 30 — is meant to help show support for indigenous students in residential schools.
Among the tragedies at residential schools was the recent discovery of the remains of 215 children who were students of the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. The residential school was one of the largest in Canada and operated from the late 19th century to the late 1970s. It was opened and run by the Catholic Church until the federal government took it over in the late 1960s.
“Residential schools happened throughout North America, and Sept. 30 was a day that we were asked to wear orange to show support for not only our school members from Akwesasne, but really all indigenous people,” Mr. Oliver said. “And I have to tell you that the high school showed up in force.”
A photo taken at the high school that day showed a sea of orange — five rows of students and staff, representing several hundred individuals who wore orange that day.
“It was a really wonderful show of support for not just our students from Akwesasne, but for all indigenous peoples,” he said. I was super proud of everybody at the high school that day. It was really a great show of support that day.”
Guidance counselor Julie White, with assistance from teacher Chad Simpson, created a short video that described what residential schools were and explained the significance of the day.
“I’m also a member of the Mohawks of Akwesasne and a proud member of the indigenous community,” she said.
She said the school joined millions of others in observing Orange Shirt Day.
“It is a day of remembrance, recognition and honor for the victims and survivors of the Indian residential school system across North America,” Ms. White said.
She said residential schools were created by the federal government and administered by the churches.
“Their goal was to eradicate native language, culture and identity,” she said. “Children were taken from their homes, their families, and forced into these institutions. They were beaten, starved and made to live in conditions that spread sickness and infestation. Thousands of children died in residential schools. Many of those deaths were unreported, so parents never knew what happened to the children they lost.”
In 1929, she said, 83% of school-aged indigenous children were in a boarding school in the United States.
“Every indigenous person you know is a descendant of a residential school survivor,” Ms. White said. “The residential school system is not a distant memory to indigenous people.”
She was 17 years old when the last residential school in North America closed in 1996. It’s not forgotten 25 years later.
“Each day, we are discovering new atrocities that occurred,” she said. “Each discovery brings new heartache and realization that our existence right now is a miracle.”