“This is the year that public awareness spread about the children who didn’t make it home from residential schools, whose deaths were not reported, and whose families may have never known what happened to their children or why they didn’t return.”Alysandra Hillaby
An interview with Alysandra Hillaby
By Matthew Fraser, Editor in Chief
One of the main issues that garnered public scrutiny in the past year was the discovery of multiple unmarked gravesites on former residential school grounds. Many of these gravesites housed the remains of hundreds of students who were previously declared missing and who may never be named. The unearthing of these remains brought to the fore a crucial conversation regarding the government’s actions towards reconciliation for these past horrors. It became prudent once again for citizens to consider how this aspect of Canadian history was taught and in what ways citizens can do better in addressing these historic wrongs.
To better understand the history and the scope, The Other Press spoke with Douglas College Student Union Indigenous representative Alysandra Hillaby. In sharing the lessons learned, the Other Press hopes to contribute to the ongoing quest for healing while illuminating the history behind the September 30 day of remembrance.
It is important to establish what Orange Shirt day is while at the same time addressing the truth and reconciliation aspect of the statutory holiday. To do this, Hillaby stresses that the two are related but separate. To begin she illustrates the history of Orange Shirt Day: “Orange Shirt Day was started in 2013 by residential school survivor Phyliss Webstad as a way to educate about the impact of residential schools on the children who attended.” On the Orange Shirt Day website, Webstad explains that the impetus began in 1973 when she was sent to the Mission Residential school with a brand new shirt bought by her grandmother. Upon arrival at the residential school, school officials took the shirt from her in disregard for her feelings or her as a person. In reflection of this and the myriad untold traumas suffered in residential schools, Orange Shirt Day was born.
Hillaby states that the day is meant to honour the children who survived, to remember the children who perished and to reaffirm that every child matters. Hillaby further explains that selecting September 30 as the day of remembrance is due to the fact that this is the time when schools start and when children were taken from their families. “By having Orange Shirt Day in the beginning of the school year, conversations about racism and bullying can be had early in the school year.” It is through this historic connection that the memories of those taken can be kept alive.
The second portion of the holiday is a direct result of the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Here, Hillaby explains that one of the 94 calls to action made by the commission was to establish a statutory holiday reflecting on the devastating impacts residential schools had on indigenous communities. “This past year in June, September 30 was chosen to be the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation and became a statutory holiday. This is the year that public awareness spread about the children who didn’t make it home from residential schools, whose deaths were not reported, and whose families may have never known what happened to their children or why they didn’t return.”
When asked about the way schools teach the history of residential schools, Hillaby is both reflective and cautiously optimistic. The reflective portion begins with her own time in Canadian Elementary schools and onwards. “From my own experience… I do not believe that Canadian schools teach enough about the history of residential schools… [Though the last school closed in 1996, growing up I remember that] any mention of residential schools was brief and didn’t describe any harms associated with them.” Though her high school taught about traditional Indigenous housing, food, and clothing, Hillaby believes that this was not deep enough. However, she acknowledges that there have been improvements in recent years and that education reform is a work in progress. She also notes that particularly in the past year, there have been more schools and teachers aiming to include information about residential schools into their curriculums. These actions help develop a deeper understanding not just for the student learners, but also for the teaching staff and wider Canadian culture.
Regarding the day itself, Hillaby believes that it is important to see September 30 as a means to educate and not just as another day off. As a result, her suggestions for personal education are both salient and accessible. She begins by suggesting that people understand the effects traumatic experiences can have; thereafter, she suggests people connect how residential schools impacted the children who attended, their families and their communities. She also points out that the legacy of residential schools continues through the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system and the child welfare system. Still, further, she implores people to respect survivors who want to share their stories and discourages insensitivity when talking about residential schools.
Hillaby also outlines some key aspects of allyship that youth can incorporate into their own lives. First amongst them is a recognition of the misinformation that has plagued previous generations; Hillaby points out that when these ideas are passed on to children, it can instill biases that must be challenged as people learn more. To challenge these biases, she sees it as paramount to learn about unceded land, land rights and Indigenous self-governance and self-determination. Also, there are Indigenous-made films located in the National Film Boards’ online collection to use as educational resources. These considerations will help youth recognize the diverse Indigenous cultures and histories of Canada.
When asked about Indigenous resources, Hillaby pointed to three key organizations. The first was the Fraser Region Aboriginal Friendship Center which supports activities that promote the health and well-being of Aboriginal People; its aims including assisting the resurgence of Aboriginal culture, language and teachings. The second is the Spirit of the Children Society; a non-profit that empowers and strengthens Indigenous families by providing support and resources to those in need. She explains that the programs offered by the Society are for all age groups and include homelessness prevention. Lastly, she refers to the Urban Native Youth Association which provides support and help towards Indigenous youth empowerment.
As for resources specifically geared towards students, Hillaby points to the many free resources that can be found online. Chief among them is the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which contains 46 articles declaring the rights and protections afforded to indigenous peoples. She also points to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation website as a place to further educate oneself about the history that has led to this moment. On a lighter note, there are resources for indigenous-led tourist opportunities here in BC as well as a free online course entitled “Indigenous Canada” created and provided by the University of Alberta.
Finally, she describes the benefits provided by the Douglas College Indigenous Centre: “I have found Indigenous Student Services to be a place for Indigenous students to connect with each other, allies, and [other] people interested in learning about Indigenous culture.” Important aspects of the centre include beading workshops, harvesting, community lunches, and visits with local elders. The centre also provides study space, computer access, peer support, and one-on-one support services provided by school staff. Hillaby states that “Personally, my favourite aspect of the space is the sense of friendship and community with the other students.”
Indigenous Student Services rooms are located in both the New Westminister campus and the David Lam Coquitlam campus. The New Westminister office is located in room S4830 on the traditional territory of the QayQayt (alternatively, Qiqayt, pronounced ‘Kee-Kite’) peoples. The Coquitlam office is in room B3131 and is located in the Kwikwetlem peoples’ traditional territory.