Ernie Callihoo said there isn’t a day that goes by that he doesn’t think of his days in residential school.
Callihoo lives in Sturgeon County on what was once the Michel First Nation reserve. He’s also one of the few living students of the Youville residential school on Mission Hill, which operated from 1863 to 1948.
On Thursday, he was just down the hill at the Little White School to share his experiences with about 50 Muriel Martin students and social workers to mark Orange Shirt Day.
“I didn’t learn much, I’d say practically nothing,” he said, as the nuns spent most of their time teaching religion and having students break the land for harvest. They also kept him apart from his siblings.
“I never really knew my family or my brother or my sister.”
And it wasn’t until about 20 years ago that he was willing to talk about the experience with anyone, Callihoo said.
“It’s hard to talk about it, very hard,” he said, choking up.
Orange Shirt Day (Sept. 30) is a national day of recognition and reconciliation for Canada’s residential schools. As it falls on a Sunday this year, many St. Albert schools and community groups planned to celebrate it on the Friday before or Monday after it.
Orange Shirt Day came out of the story of B.C.’s Phyllis Webstad, who, on her first day at a residential school, was stripped of her new orange shirt, family and cultural identity, said Leanne MacMillan of St. Albert’s community and social development department. The shirt has come to symbolize a childhood lost and the experience some 150,000 Indigenous Canadians endured in residential schools.
Across generationsMaureen Callihoo Ligtvoet and MacMillan said they organized Thursday’s event to help social workers understand how residential schools affect people today and to connect clients with resources that can help.
“Even if you’re not a survivor, we all as a community feel that ripple effect of residential schools,” said Callihoo Ligtvoet, a social worker at the St. Albert Family Resource Centre.
Intergenerational survivors can suffer from grief, addictions, family violence and post-traumatic stress, said Callihoo Ligtvoet, who is Callihoo’s daughter. Many of the young Indigenous parents she works with today say they lack a sense of identity and belonging.
“They feel lost and they want to change that for their children.”
Without positive parental role models, Callihoo Ligtvoet said her dad didn’t know to hug his kids or say “I love you” to them. He fell into alcoholism and eventually divorced. She struggled in school because of this rough home life, and grew up thinking that her Indigenous roots were a source of shame.
“I myself didn’t really celebrate my identity as a First Nations woman until I was 30,” she said.
Residential school experience leaves many survivors with a deep distrust of government, MacMillan said. If you need long-term care, for example, you might not trust an agency that tries to send you to the Youville Home, as that used to be a residential school.
Callihoo Ligtvoet said her father was devastated when he recently had to send a good friend to a long-term care facility.
“He just felt he was putting her right back into residential school.”
MacMillan said it’s the responsibility of every Canadian to learn about residential schools and how they affect people today, adding that they can do so through books, the Musée Héritage Museum, and Michif Cultural Connections.
“We can no longer say we didn’t know.”
Callihoo said he was happy to see the many kids in orange shirts at Thursday’s event, and said they gave him the courage to speak about his experience.
St. Albert city council will issue a proclamation on Orange Shirt on Monday and hold a ceremony at the Healing Garden at 1:30 p.m. Visit orangeshirtday.org for more on reconciliation.