'I see a huge shift in the education system'

Jennifer Pighin, District Vice Principal, Aboriginal Education, Language and Culture for School District No. 57, reads The Orange Shirt Story to two students at Nusdeh Yoh Elementary School.

Godwin Barton, a residential school survivor and Aboriginal Education Worker at Nusdeh Yoh, plays a drum during Orange Shirt Day on Monday at the school.

District Vice Principal speaks about residential schools, importance of getting to the truth

Jennifer Pighin is glad a light is being shined into the dark history of residential schools in Canada. In her view, telling the stories of that era is all part of increasing the level of understanding in today’s school system and society as a whole.

“Every story that I hear, it’s tear-jerking to understand how that must feel and I think for the students it makes it very personal,” Pighin said. “It’s not some abstract concept that’s so far away – people that (the students) know have been through this and they can ask questions and see how that has impacted them. That continuum needs to carry forward for people to understand how it was and what happened.

“Once the truth is out there you can talk about it and understand what’s going on around us a lot more and why people are where they are and what’s holding them back.”

Pighin, District Vice Principal, Aboriginal Education, Language and Culture for School District No. 57, attended the Orange Shirt Day assembly at Nusdeh Yoh Elementary School on Monday and, while there, listened to residential school survivor Godwin Barton tell his story. Barton spoke to students, staff and visitors about being taken from his home in Prince Rupert at the age of six and being put on a bus for “the longest, loneliest, most saddening trip” of his young life.

“I will never forget that experience,” continued Barton, who is an Aboriginal Education Worker at Nusdeh Yoh. “My mother had just passed away so if that pain wasn’t enough, now I was going on a bus on a journey to a place that I had never heard of, did not know what to expect and did not know what would happen once I got there.”

The bus ride went through day and night, and into the next day. Then came a ferry ride. And another bus ride. When the journey finally ended, Barton’s experiences in residential school began. He and his brother, Fred, were immediately separated from their sister, Linda.

Godwin Barton was the youngest of the three but can recall the moment vividly.

“I remember looking over to the girls – the entire group of little girls, and my sister was amongst them – and I remember wanting to fight for my sister when the supervisor took her and pushed her into the girls’ group. I didn’t like the way she pushed her. And she looked at me and she was already crying. I looked at her, I was already crying. I looked at Freddy and there was nothing we could do.”

Inside the Nusdeh Yoh gymnasium, Barton spoke for almost 15 minutes. He ended his story by saying: “They tried to destroy us but we’re still going strong. We’re still here, we still live, we still breathe, we’re still beautiful.”

The purpose of Orange Shirt Day is to recognize the legacy of residential schools in Canada and to show support for reconciliation. Orange has become symbolic of the day because of the experiences of residential school survivor Phyllis Webstad, who had her treasured orange shirt stripped away from her upon her arrival at St. Joseph Mission Residential School near Williams Lake in the fall of 1973.

Pighin, who has Wet’suwet’un heritage and is a member of the Lheidli T’enneh First Nation, knows some of her own family’s residential school stories.

“The impact is far and wide,” she said. “My grandparents went to residential school. My mom went to a Christian school in Smithers and the way they treated people was very similar. They set the bar with the residential schools so even in the public system and the Catholic systems of education they were still treating the Indigenous children in a very similar manner. The stories I heard from my mom were pretty terrifying.

“You have trauma in children at such a young age,” she added. “That leaves markers on their psyche that cause them to have difficulties throughout their lives, not to mention the fact that they weren’t truly educated. Grade 6, they’d be leaving (school) and out into the world to work but wouldn’t have a clue of how to read or a greater concept of the world around us and not a full grasp of language.”

Pighin noted that the ripple effect of the harm caused in those early years manifests itself in multiple ways in our society.

“If you don’t have a Grade 12 education a lot of jobs you can’t get, but they weren’t given that opportunity to get Grade 12 education back then,” she said. “And that has impacts on poverty and people being overrepresented in the justice system and foster care and stuff like that as well.”

In a context of truth and reconciliation, Pighin is heartened by what she sees happening in today’s school system and in Canadian society as a whole.

“I see a huge shift in the education system, working towards a more inclusive and more culturally sensitive and culturally aware system,” she said. “You can see it in the schools, you can see it in the classrooms, you can see it in the kids, and even trickling out into the parents. A lot of us, even myself, were educated in the education system without all this information so our families are learning and our teachers are learning and we’re all learning together. That’s one of the great pieces about it – everyone’s learning together and getting a better grasp of the history and where we’re at and what we need to do to better the situation.”