There was a sea of orange shirts in Timmins today.
In recognition of Orange Shirt Day and the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, hundreds of people walked to honour residential school survivors and remember the children who never returned home from residential schools.
“It’s a way that we can educate the public on what really happened,” said Caitlyn Kaltwasser, a Timmins Native Friendship Centre youth employment counsellor. “I grew up in a generation where we didn’t really get to learn what really happened, and when I got to college, I was finally able to learn about it, and it was quite shocking to hear what really happened.”
Kaltwasser‘s grandmother was a survivor of the notorious St. Anne’s residential school in Fort Albany and a Cree language teacher.
“I am an intergenerational survivor; I was raised by my grandmother,” she said. “This day means quite a lot to me, and I hold it very dear to my heart to honour my grandmother and her siblings and all of the children that never made it home as well.”
Those family connections are an important part of the day, said Mickayla Bird, TNFC executive director.
“I’d like to take this time as a space for us to gather and to be together in unity and really appreciate our community,” she said. “The overall support, I do see that growth happening.”
Orange Shirt Day is a grassroots Indigenous-led recognition of residential school survivors first observed in 2013.
Inspired by the accounts of Phyllis Jack Webstad, whose personal clothing — including a new orange shirt — was taken from her during her first day of residential schooling. The orange shirts have come to symbolize awareness of the history of residential schools.
In 2021, the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, which also falls on Sept. 30, was made a federal holiday.
With Orange Shirt Day falling on a Saturday this year, the turnout was expected to be high.
Hours before the walk started, people were already gathering at the friendship centre.
“We weren’t really expecting that, but it’s good," said Bird.
Mushkegowuk Council deputy grand chief south Natasha Martin said seeing such a diverse group participating in the event was good.
“When it comes to truth and reconciliation, it’s important that we’re all together because we all understand what needs to be done,” she said. “People recognize how important this day is
After the walk, several community members shared their stories.
Activities for children, coffee, tea, and the sacred fire outside the friendship centre will be available until 3 p.m. today.
“The thing about Timmins is there are so many people from so many different communities, and we all have the same goals in mind,” said Martin. “I think we’re on the right path, and we’ll continue to work together and we’ll get there.”
Mayor Michelle Boileau and Timmins MPP George Pirie attended the walk.
Kaltwasser emphasized the importance of changes in language and cultural programs as a way toward intergenerational healing.
“My late grandmother was a language keeper, and she taught Cree to the little ones at Schumacher public, and I didn’t get that opportunity; I could count to five, and that’s about it,” she said. “But it’s amazing to see that my son now will get that opportunity to learn that in the classroom. It’s a choice now, and that’s come lightyears from where we’ve been.”
She said she’s looking forward to seeing people like her who can speak Cree and work in the community in the future.
Kaltwasser also said that the support in the community in the last few years has exploded.
“I’ve been coming to events like this as long as I can remember, but since the Kamloops discovery, the way the community has come out to support this cause has been truly, truly remarkable and almost overwhelming,” said Kaltwasser. “We’re seeing people learn about what we always knew and that in itself is amazing. There’s a lot of work left to do.”
A 24-hour national residential school crisis line to support former students and their families is available at 1-866-925-4419.