Residential school survivors Doris and Keith


Marking Orange Shirt Day with residential school survivors

We spoke to two residential school survivors for Orange Shirt Day.

In 1973, Phyllis Webstad, a six-year-old girl from the Dog Creek reserve in British Columbia, arrived at the Saint Joseph Mission residential school. Her grandmother had bought her a shiny orange shirt to go to the school, even though the family didn’t have much money. The orange shirt was so bright and exciting – “just like I felt to be going to school!” says Webstad on Orange Shirt Day’s website.

At the Mission, they stripped the child, took away her clothes, including the orange shirt. She says in that event, she not only lost her orange shirt, but so much else. Orange Shirt Day grew out of Webstad’s story, and since 2013, it’s been an opportunity to talk about all aspects of residential schools. 

This year, at Bow Valley College, on October 5, four residential school survivors will be speaking about their loss. We interviewed two of the speakers in anticipation of Thursday’s event. They are Doris Calliou, a Cultural Resource Elder at the College from the Alexander First Nations, and Keith Chiefmoon, from the Kanai Nation. Here are some excerpts from our conversations with them. 

Bow Valley College: When Phyllis lost her orange shirt at the residential school, it symbolized losing so much else. What did you lose in your experience at the residential school?

Doris: They cut my hair. I had long hair that was a little curly – they cut it really short. And they tried to take my freedom. The loneliness and not knowing where I was, as a five-year-old kid, it was kind of really devastating for me. 

Keith: My personal esteem was almost non-existent. I didn’t feel very good about myself because I was called names. I was embarrassed a lot of the time of who I was. 

But my dad encouraged me. He said I needed to stay in school. 

Bow Valley College: What else can you tell us about your experience at the residential school?

Doris: They took me away a second time when I was going into Grade 8. They just said that we have to go to this school. There were whole busloads of us going. We didn’t have a clue what was going on. I had two little sisters. I tried to comfort them. You weren’t allowed to hug any of your siblings or try and nurture them.

I ran away lots, too. It must have been ten times that I ran away.

Bow Valley College: What did you go on to do after you attended the residential school?

Doris: I finished high school in Edmonton, then went to Grant McEwan. I’ve been a social worker, an administrator, and a nursing aid in the trauma section of the hospital. I’m now 77. I have grandchildren, and a great-grandchild that I babysit.

Doris is one of the six of the Iniikokaan Centre’s Cultural Resource Elders, and has been working with Indigenous students at Bow Valley College since 2012.

Keith: It was a challenge to finish my elementary, junior high, and high school. But I managed to work through it. I then tried to get myself a job, only to find out that once I received my high school diploma, the racism and discrimination continued. The only job that I was able to get was as a farm hand. I thought, there’s got to be a better way to earn a living.

I went to the University of Lethbridge’s office of the registrar. They asked me what I was doing there. I said, “I want to apply.” They said, “You?” They called my high school and asked if I had graduated. 

Then, they looked at my application. And one day, my dad said there was a letter from the university. That’s when they accepted me.

Keith graduated from the University of Lethbridge, and in addition has a degree from Gonzaga University, where he earned a Master of Arts. He is currently a committee member of the Curriculum Branch, First Nations, Métis and Inuit Education Division, Alberta Education. He speaks on Indigenous history and Aboriginal Rights, protocols, teachings, ceremonies, values, and beliefs.
Iniikokaan Centre’s Cultural Resource Elders are supported by Imperial.

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