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Art Charlie's orange shirt 'speaks for the survivors and the ones we lost'

While Art Charlie never attended residential school, growing up in Ahousaht and Port Alberni, he knew plenty of people who did and were never the same afterwards.
Island artist Art Charlie has designed orange shirts for Friday's National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. Charlie said the Every Child Matters shirt, seen at Northwest Origins store downtown, was inspired by the discoveries of unmarked graves at residential schools across the country.

Art Charlie never attended a residential school.

He considers himself lucky, saying he would “have a suitcase packed” if the orders came.

But growing up in Ahousaht and Port Alberni, he knew plenty of people who did go to the schools. Most, said Charlie, were never the same afterward, carrying ghosts of their experiences and often a legacy of alcohol, drugs and broken families.

“I had lots of aunties and uncles where I could go,” recalls Charlie, 65. “I went to public school, and I learned from them how to carve. I’ve loved to carve since I was 12, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”

Carving and designing are still what ground Charlie, a father of eight. They allow him to pass down the stories from his elders and his own past.

So he felt compelled to design an orange shirt for Friday’s National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, when Canadians acknowledge the harm the residential school system did to generations of First Nations families and their communities.

Charlie, who manages Northwest Origins on Government Street in downtown Victoria, says the design is from his heart. The art is centred by the symbol of his grandmother — the moon and protector — surrounded by the eagle (wisdom), raven (knowledge), bear (strength) and wolf (family). The shirt says “Every Child Matters Always” and “With a small whisper … they have found us. We are going home.”

Charlie says his shirt was inspired by the discoveries of unmarked graves at residential schools across the country, including Kamloops. Ground-penetrating scans have also been completed at school sites on Vancouver Island, including Penelakut Island and Port Alberni.

“It hits me particularly hard when I think about it,” Charlie says. “This speaks for the survivors and the ones we lost.”

Proceeds from Charlie’s shirts, available at Northwest Origins, will go to the Residential School Survivors Society and the Orange Shirt Society, which supports families of survivors.

Several events are being held this week and on Friday to mark Orange Shirt Day, which grew out of Phyllis Webstad’s account of having her new orange shirt taken away on her first day of St. Joseph’s residential school in Mission in 1974. Since 2013, Orange Shirt Day has raised awareness of the legacy of residential schools.

The Xe Xe Smun’ Eem-Victoria Orange Shirt Day: Every Child Matters ceremony is being held Friday from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. in Centennial Square. The free event will take place rain or shine, and will also be livestreamed on the City of Victoria’s Facebook page and on the CHEK+ app.

Residential-school survivor Eddy Charlie and friend Kristin Spray are organizing the event, which they developed in 2015 while attending the Indigenous Studies program at Camosun College. Xe Xe Smun’ Eem means “Sacred Children” in the Cowichan or Quw utsun language.

Charlie says to honour the meaning behind the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation, Canada needs to recognize the importance of the impacts of the trauma experienced by children who were taken away from their homes and displaced in residential schools across Canada.

“Residential school trauma is going to have an impact on people for many more generations before healing is possible,” he said, “and the best way to do this is by sharing the stories from survivors and their children and grandchildren.”

The event will feature performances and speakers, the annual raising of the Victoria Orange Shirt Day flag and a minute of silence to remember the children who did not survive residential schools.

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