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Episode 3: Orange Shirt Day

September 30, 2020

Orange Shirt Day is a day to acknowledge the intergenerational trauma of residential schools, as well as taking steps toward healing and reconciliation. It symbolizes the story of Phyllis (Jack) Webstad, whose brand-new orange shirt was taken from her on her first day at a residential school, when she was just six years old.  

In this episode, we talk with Dr. Yvonne Poitras Pratt, a Métis scholar who specializes in Indigenous education. Yvonne gives us some of the background on Orange Shirt Day and how this event can help spark broader conversations about Canada's history with Indigenous peoples and the brutal legacy of residential schools.  

UCalgary's events and resources to Orange Shirt Day can be found here.

Mike MacKinnon (MM): Welcome to We Can Answer That. I'm your host Mike MacKinnon. Each week, I sit down with a UCalgary expert to ask five questions contributed by our audience and to shed light on topics that matter to you. Today, we're talking about Orange Shirt Day. The brutal legacy of residential schools has haunted Canada for generations and still does to this day. The trauma inflicted on Indigenous children has left deep social and cultural scars that could take generations to heal. Orange Shirt Day is a day to acknowledge the intergenerational trauma of residential schools as well as taking steps toward healing and reconciliation. It symbolizes the story of Phyllis (Jack) Webstad, whose brand new orange shirt was taken from her on her first day at a residential school when she was just six years old. Today, our guest is Dr. Yvonne Poitras Pratt, an associate professor in our Werklund School of Education. YPP is a Metis scholar who specializes in Indigenous education. She developed a master's degree pathway program called Indigenous Education: A Call to Action, which was designed to teach future educators and other concerned citizens how to implement the truth and reconciliation committees calls to action in community settings across Canada, including in classrooms. Yvonne, thanks for speaking with us today.


Yvonne Poitras Pratt (YPP): Well, thanks for inviting me to this podcast event, Mike. It's exciting to be here to talk to you about the Orange Shirt Day.


MM: So, what is Orange Shirt Day and why is it important?


YPP: So, as your intro explained, Orange Shirt Day is a day where educators across Canada come together in a bid to raise awareness around residential schools. This is done primarily in classrooms across Canada in support of Phyllis and other residential school survivors like her who had much of their childhood... I'm just going to use the term ruined through the residential schooling system. And so, Orange Shirt Day is a day for educators to encourage their students in their classroom to don an orange shirt in recognition of the choice that was taken away from Phyllis. And it's representative of the ways in which I think choice in a broader understanding was taken away from many, many Indigenous children who were forced into the residential schooling system. And so, wearing an orange shirt is a reclamation of that power of choice. And it also symbolizes... For me, when I think about Phyllis' story, it represents the interjection of joy back into the learning environment,


MM: And how do these events or actions like Orange Shirt Day help change attitudes or shift prejudices in classrooms?


YPP: Well, when a school and the teachers in those classrooms ask the students to wear an orange shirt to the classroom on Orange Shirt Day, what it symbolizes is awareness raising. So, what you're doing when you ask students to put on an orange shirt, they go home, they ask mum and dad, "Can I wear an orange shirt?" And it gets a conversation. Conversations started in the family setting around residential schools. So, it's a way to take learning from the classroom into a more public setting such as our family homes and into our communities and to get people talking about what were residential schools, what were the impacts on Indigenous peoples. And it gets people starting to unearth I think some of their preconceptions around Indigenous peoples and maybe some attitudes that might be ill-conceived around stereotypes they might've heard. And it really it starts to erode I think the roots of racism that are present in our Canadian society.


MM: So, your answers suggest that maybe the current school curriculums aren't comprehensive enough when dealing with residential schools or Indigenous history. So, would you say our school systems are doing enough to educate children about Canada's history with Indigenous people?


YPP: I think we're improving, Mike. I think definitely with the ways in which the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has gone about their work and had public awareness, raising events across Canada with the residential school survivors stories, that has done a lot to raise public awareness around residential schooling. But in terms of school systems, teaching our younger generations about the impacts of our colonial past, I would say that we are definitely on the road. We've started some really good initiatives here in Alberta. We have the introduction of what is called the Teaching Quality Standard five. And this makes the integration of Indigenous perspectives and topics across the curriculum mandatory for our teachers to bring into their classrooms. So, what is referred to as educators as TQS5 is the mandatory inclusion of Indigenous perspectives. Unfortunately, Canada has had a very long history of hiding the stories that surround the treatment of Canada's first peoples. And so, as educators, we see ourselves at the forefront of changing attitudes through the telling of truths from Indigenous perspectives and teaching people the real truth of Canada. And so, this is a growing movement. I would say it's not perfectly underway. We've got many issues to think about still. We've got practicing teachers who are still themselves learning about the history of Canada's history around Indigenous peoples. So, although at Werklund we've had a mandatory Indigenous education class since 2013 for our pre-service teachers before they actually become teachers. We've been working hard to improve that class so that the students take up the learning in a good way. And what I mean by in a good way is that they're moving beyond just a content approach. They're actually working to include Indigenous perspectives and indigenizing practices within their classrooms. So, oftentimes in the Indigenous community we refer to content only as a beads and bannock approach. What we're trying to do with our students is to show them that indigenizing the curriculum is actually a meaningful way of changing up the curriculum so that Indigenous perspectives are more than just learning dates, learning names. It really is about how do we teach and how do children learn? So, we're changing the dynamics within the schooling system. And from all accounts so far from our students, this has been transformative education. We're changing the way they think about Canada as a nation. We're changing the way that they teach and we're changing oftentimes the way that they think about themselves as citizens of Canada.


MM: Now, what about outside the classroom, adults, the rest of the population? Many Canadians still don't even know what residential schools were or the damage they did to Indigenous people. How are our governments fixing that gap or are they taking any action at all?


YPP: Yeah. And that's another great question because it's one thing to teach our young children and I have to say, starting with our teachers and then when they're in the classroom working with children teaching them the truths of Canada. But many times as I referred to before, children are going home with these stories. And what we're finding is that the kids themselves are actually doing a lot of the teaching to their own parents. And I know in the mandatory Indigenous ed class that I teach, oftentimes I'll hear my students say right around the time that we introduce them to some of the darker history, the residential schooling system, we'll show them the film We Were Children as representative of what has happened to children, yeah, through the residential schools. And they'll bring that newfound knowledge. And these are typically young adults although we have a range of ages that come to our education classes. They'll come home from... It's usually around Thanksgiving. They'll come home... Well, they'll go home to their families, talk to them about what they're learning around residential schools and then they'll come to class the following week and they'll start talking to us about what they've learned in their interactions with their family members. And it's really interesting to me, it's really revealing oftentimes the students will say that they brought up the topic at the family dinner table. And that was a bad idea because right away, the students are encountering a lot of the racist stereotypes that some generations hold around Indigenous peoples. And because our students are being introduced to the truths that have been hidden from many generations of Canadians, oftentimes they encounter a lot of resistance from family members, from loved ones. And so, it brings up a really interesting... It's a potential area for change but it also has to be handled very delicately, diplomatically maybe. And so, adults are actually being influenced in many cases by younger generations. And when you're talking about teachers working in the classrooms with very young children, they're bringing that topic home to their parents. So, are our government's doing enough to address that gap in knowledge from mainstream Canadians outside of the K-12 schooling system? I think more could be done. Quite honestly, I think the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has done admirable work bringing public awareness around what has happened in the past. But the term reconciliation itself is a term that's hotly contested from both the Indigenous and non-Indigenous sides. We have Indigenous people who say, "Reconciliation is just a trend. It's a buzzword. It has no meaning, no real redress behind it." They speak of, "What about the stolen lands? What about unceded land claims that have gone on for decades? What is the government actually doing to atone for that wrongdoing, those injustices?" And then, from the non-Indigenous side, we've got this... Oftentimes, it's brought about by lack of awareness or lack of understanding but people will say, "Oh, well that all happened in the past. Let it go. Why can't they get over it?" We get these insensitive remarks around reconciliation. And I think a lot of it stems from a lack of knowing. And what I have witnessed working in the area of adult education is that when you bring truths to people who are ready for the truths of Canada, what oftentimes you see as is a range of emotions. And a lot of my teaching is dealing with that emotion that surrounds the telling of truths. And I've seen reactions from anger to guilt, to shame, to disgust at a schooling system that didn't teach them the truths. There's a whole range of emotions that's attached to this learning. And so, as a teacher educator, I know I work really hard in the classroom to make sure that I present the material in a way that people can receive it. But I also don't cloak the truths. I make sure that the truths have got to be delivered before people's minds can be changed. And so, you have to always be ready for people to react often in very strong ways. And so, is our government doing enough by way of working to help educators? Maybe not quite enough. I think if public education could surround this, it would certainly make our jobs a lot easier. We often hear stories of our teachers going out into their classrooms and when it comes to parent-teacher interviews, they'll encounter hostile parents who are saying things like, "Why are you teaching my kids this kind of material? What are we doing? Why are we wasting tax dollars?" So, what's happening there is teachers are bumping up against some... And I'll use the term ignorance because it really is a lack of knowing the full truth of Canada. So, yeah. I think there's a lot more that could be done. I think people have heard residential schools, the term, but whether they really understand what that means often, I think it's important that they watch films like We Were Children or they listen to survivors stories or take a role in listening to the voices of Indigenous peoples and actually sitting and listening. Because what I find is when I work with adults is that here in our mainstream society, oftentimes we don't listen very well. We're really good at getting ready with our next retort to what we're going to say next. But we're not really listening deeply. And so, I know in my own classrooms, I work hard with my students to practice deep listening. So, you're actually looking and listening for the intent of the message. And I think that's part of the work that we have to do as the public when we listen to residential school stories. We have to listen with our hearts and with our minds. You can't really detach one from the other in this area. So, long-winded answer but yeah. Adult education, I think there's a lot more that could be done.


MM: So, in that vein, I'm going to ask a question that we didn't prepare in advance. You mentioned a few times people being hostile or resistant to these ideas. How do you address that? How do you deal with someone like that or how do you make them understand or convince them or that sort of thing?


YPP: It's a great question. Certainly, I'll recount a story for my first day of teaching the mandatory Indigenous education class to our pre-service teachers. So, it was an interesting day. I think we were all full of anxiety. And when I say we I'm talking about the teacher educators as well as the pre-service teachers. And I remember walking through the hallways and heading towards my classroom where I had, I believe it was about 35 students who would be encountering this class that was mandated for them for the first time. And I remember thinking that this is going to be a tough class. There was already hallway chatter, is what I referred to it as, where students were already coming together and saying, "We're not going to come to this class. Nobody can make us." And so, there was open resistance already to the class. So, I entered the classroom knowing that this wasn't going to be the typical first day in class, which usually has a lot of anxiety around it. Well, you start mandating a topic that's not that well known and not that easily embraced. And you're entering a whole different hostile learning environment. So, I walked into the classroom and I remember thinking to myself that something was up and that the students had been talking before class and that they had a plan for this, especially an Indigenous educator. They were going to let her know their side. And so, I walked in and right away, you do the welcoming of students, you do the typical teacherly things and try to make people feel a little more comfortable. But right away, I was challenged. And I remember this young man threw his arm in the air and I had asked for questions. And so, I called on him and he said, "Why do I have to take this class?" And he said it in a really defiant arms crossed... You can imagine what this looks like, kind of way, "Why do I got to take this class?" And I thought to myself, "Okay. Here we go. Now we're in it." And so, at that point I knew that the entire class was watching my reaction to him. And this was something that they had discussed ahead of time. So, as any good teacher does, you step into the space. And so, I remember walking directly towards him and stepping into his space, A, to let him know I wasn't fearful of his question and B to let him know I had something to assert as well. And so, I approached him and I said, "It's a great question. Let's talk about it." And right away, I opened it to the entire classroom. So, I defuse from the us versus them scenario he'd set up. And I pushed it out to the community of learners, my students. And I said, "What do you guys think? Why are you in this class?" And so, it engaged the community, the classroom, the students who would be educators in a conversation. And I think this is how you enter into these hostile and resistant conversations. You can never be reactive because I think what you do with that kind of reaction is you shut down the learning. And that is the worst thing I can do as an educator is to shut down the learning. If I often say to my students, "I can turn off your learning with the way that I raise my eyebrow in the wrong way or if I cross my arms or shake my head." I can turn off that entire classroom of learners from what I consider to be some of the most fundamental learning they're going to experience in the program. And so, I have to be very careful about every move I make, the tone of my voice, the way that I place my body, how I react. So, all of that was in my reaction to his challenge to me. And so, showing that I was fearless in terms of encountering his question and opening it up to the classroom to start talking about, to hear divergent viewpoints, to hear people that might be fearful or anxious around the topic. What I do know as an educator is oftentimes when you get people who are hostile or very resistant, it means a few things. It either means they don't know enough about the topic and so they're trying to hide behind those reactions or they've had something happen in their past and they have generalized it out to everybody. So, that's where stereotypes come from. And so, the best thing we can do is start a dialogue. And so, in engaging the class in a dialogue, we were able to defuse the situation. And thankfully, I can tell you by the the end of our eight weeks together, the young man did approach me and say, "I want to apologize for the way I was on the first day." He said, "I understand that I just didn't know." And so, knowing that you don't know is actually a very first good step in learning this material.


MM: So, let's take it outside of the classroom and to the community at large. What can people in the community do to show support for redress or reconciliation or to address these issues?


YPP: So the graduate pathway program that you described in the intro, back in 2016, I worked together with some colleagues at Werklund and we designed... It's a one-year program that's comprised of four courses. And it's entitled Indigenous Education: A Call to Action. And what we did with that program is we very intentionally set up the four courses to have our students take up one of the TRC Calls to Action. And so, what we do is we bring our students through some it really intense learning in the summer. So, they take two courses typically in the summer for 10 days on campus. Of course, this year it was changed with COVID restricting what we could do in terms of face-to-face. So, we redesigned the program essentially this summer. But typically, we're brought together for 10 days and we work alongside elders for the 10 days. And our classrooms are typically half Indigenous, half non-Indigenous. And we send our students out into the community. We start preparing them more and more in the fall course. And by the winter term, they're actually out in communities taking up a TRC Call to Action. So, they're identifying which call to action they want to focus in on, they're dialoguing with their chosen community partner around what they mutually feel would be an important project to take up and then they're actually enacting that... Well, we call it a capstone project. And so, in terms of how can people support in the community, their support for reconciliation. I mean, of course the graduate program enrolling we get a lot of educators but we've also attracted social workers, activists, healthcare workers. And this year for the first time, we had a faculty member from outside of Calgary take our program. So, we're attracting a broader scope of people into the program. That's a very intentional way of taking up the Calls to Action. More broadly speaking, my colleague, Patricia Danyluk and I have written on the topic of reconciliation. We introduce a model for engaging in the work of reconciliation. And one of the first things we'll invite people who have very little experience or knowledge around Indigenous peoples is we invite them to take up listening to and learning from as their first step into reconciliation. So, that could be something as simple as listening to A Tribe Called Red, picking up a podcast from an Indigenous scholar or an author, picking up a book from an Indigenous author and just doing that in the privacy of your home so that you're not on public display, you're learning within the confines of your own comfort within your own home. The second stage of this three-step model is walking with and learning from. So, this is where we invite anyone who wants to take up this work to step outside of the home setting. And I realize restrictions are not making this as possible lately. But to attend a public event where they can show a public display of support for Indigenous peoples doesn't mean they're in a speaking role, it means they're still in a listening role but they're showing their commitment by placing themselves in a public setting. So, that can be something like the Sisters in Spirit Vigil. I know at the University of Calgary we've hung the red dresses on campus, that is a more public demonstration of support for Indigenous peoples. And that third step is working with and learning from. And that is best I think represented in the Call to Action Program, where we're teaching you about Indigenous cultural traditions, perspectives, ceremonies alongside community members. We typically spend a day out in Siksika with the Old Sun Community College. So, there's a whole lot of learning that wraps around the students before we actually get them approaching someone to do a reconciliation project with. So, yeah. So, listening to, walking with and working with all the while are learning from.


MM: This has been... We Can Answer That. We've been talking to Dr. Yvonne Poitras Pratt, an associate professor in our Werklund School of Education. You can subscribe to We Can Answer That on Apple, Google or Spotify or by visiting ucalgary.ca/podcasts. Follow our social channels to see which one of our experts will be featured in our next episode and to send us questions you'd like them to answer. We Can Answer That is recorded on the traditional territories of the people of the Treaty 7 region in Southern Alberta, which includes the Blackfoot Confederacy comprising the Siksika, Piikani and Kainai first nations, as well as the Tsuu T'ina first nation and the Stoney Nakoda, including the Chiniki, Bearspaw and Wesley first nations. The City of Calgary is also a home to Metis Nation of Alberta, Region III. We Can Answer That is a production of the University of Calgary. Thanks for listening.



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Every child matters - Orange Shirt Day