Every child matters: An orange T-shirt garden to honour the victims of residential schools

Posted on Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Orange shirt signs cover Tabaret Lawn

Eight-hundred orange T-shirt signs blanketed the green grass of uOttawa’s Tabaret lawn, which is on unceded Algonquin territory, to mark the first annual National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on September 30. Orange Shirt Day, as it’s also called, is a time to commemorate and reflect on the atrocities done to Indigenous peoples in residential schools across Canada, made more poignant this year with the discovery of thousands of unmarked graves of Indigenous children who never made it back to their families.

Students writing messages on orange shirt signs and planting them in the grass

On each of these orange signs, members of the University community wrote personalized messages expressing their grief, their solidarity and their commitment to the Indigenous communities who have suffered great loss and who continue to be harmed by the dark realities of the residential school system.

Meagan Commonda at the podium, left, crowd sitting on the steps of Tabaret Hall, right

Meagan Commonda, left, giving the opening speech at the Orange Shirt Garden Ceremony.

“What does reconciliation mean?” asked Meagan Commonda, an Algonquin alumna from Kitigan Zibi First Nation who graduated from the Indigenous Studies and Sociology programs. “That’s not our word. As Indigenous people, we never had a word for reconciliation. It kind of implies that there’s been a two-way wrongdoing and we know that that’s not the case. We’ve opened our lands and our homes to all the settler states and that’s just been our nature, to share. So, what does it mean to be an ally? It means to stand in unity, beside us, not in front of us, not behind us. Beside us. And to continue to learn, ask questions and actively listen.”

The orange shirt garden and ceremony was an initiative led by the uOttawa Indigenous Student Association (ISA), a group of First Nations, Métis and Inuit students who strive to foster a sense of belonging and community at the University of Ottawa. They worked in partnership with uOttawa’s Indigenous Affairs Office, the Mashkawazìwogamig Indigenous Resource Centre, the Institute of Indigenous Research and Studies, and the Indigenous Law Students Governance.

Reeta Koostachin

“For all the Indigenous people here today, please remember that our ancestors left more than their trauma,” said Alloreeta Ayakwayatikook Koostachin, member of the Indigenous Students Association (ISA). “They left their love and their strength.”

Mayhève Rondeau, a member of Moose Cree First Nation and one of the event’s organizers, could not attend the ceremony in person. Victoria Smith stood at the podium to share her colleague’s words:

“I wanted to share a mental health reminder to our youth who have been walking with heavy hearts,” wrote Mayhève. “In times like these, when I am under any kind of stress, I remind myself of my granny’s resiliency, courage and her willingness to relearn her language and culture after spending years in residential school.

“These strengths are in all First Nations, Métis and Inuit youth. These are passed through intergenerational knowledge, and when it feels like we’re running on autopilot mode, we must remind ourselves that we are strong, resilient peoples and that we are still here.

“Allies, this is a day to listen. After today, continue to wear orange, continue to show up and continue to uplift and amplify our voices. This is how we can collectively contribute to truth and reconciliation.”

 Reeta Koostachin, Victoria Smith, Jacques Frémont, Meagan Commonda and Jill Scott.

From left: Alloreeta Ayakwayatikook Koostachin, Victoria Smith, Jacques Frémont (uOttawa president and vice-chancellor), Meagan Commonda and Jill Scott (provost and vice-president, academic affairs).

“If we are to live up to the ideals of respect, of cultural acceptance and of equality that this country claims to cherish, and if we are truly to achieve reconciliation for generations to come, then we must not hide from our shared history, but accept it, acknowledge it and learn from it,” said Jacques Frémont, president and vice-chancellor. “We must own that history and work not to erase the past but ensure that it is overshadowed by a far more just and compassionate present and a future we can all truly be proud of.”

Jonathan Mathews, left, and Jericho Mac with his daughter, right, sing and drum

Jonathan Mathews, left, and Jericho Mac with his daughter, right, perform an honour song to close out the ceremony.

“The Indigenous students have really brought heart today and I can’t thank them enough,” said Victoria Marchand, former coordinator for the Mashkawazìwogamig Indigenous Resource Centre, who moderated the ceremony. “I’m so privileged to have worked with you and to have been guided by you. The strength of our youth is so visible today.”

In closing, Marchand reminded the University community “to always hold our heart, to be kind and move in love. Meegwetch.”

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