The Meaning of Orange Shirt Day: Connecting with Helena Mazawasicuna and Melissa Tacan

Today, September 30, is Orange Shirt Day – a day where we take the opportunity to have a meaningful discussion about the effects of residential schools and the continued impact that they have on Indigenous Peoples and communities. A day when all Canadians can come together in the spirit of reconciliation and listen to the stories of survivors and their families.

On a personal note, I’ve been contributing to the PumpTalk blog for about five years now and I’ve had the opportunity to interview a number of amazing people, but the interview we are sharing with you today is truly one of the most special to me. I had the privilege of connecting with two of our Associates at the Sioux Valley Petro-Canada, located on the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation near Griswold, Manitoba: Helena Mazawasicuna and Melissa Tacan. Helena is the General Manager of the site and Melissa is a member of her team.

PumpTalk: Thank you, Helena and Melissa, for sitting down with me today. Could you share a bit of background about the SVPC site?

Although it’s been here since 2016, the Sioux Valley Petro-Canada officially opened on January 31, 2017 and employs 18 people. We have lots of job opportunities. We want to help the younger generation work while they are going to school or during the summer. Give them a boost to get them going. And not just with a job. But teach them how to open a bank account and how to save money.

The Petro-Can is a big part of the community – this year especially. When the (Sioux Valley Dakota Nation) reserve was shut down for COVID, we were the main source for food and fuel. We stayed open all the way through and provided the reserve with their hampers during COVID.

PumpTalk: Today is Orange Shirt Day. So that PumpTalk readers can start to understand the importance of this day, could you share the impact of residential schools on your community?

We are here representing and can only speak to Sioux Valley residential school survivors. We’ve not been through residential schools, but our families have. We can talk about their experiences.

My (Helena) husband has shared stories with me about his father – he was in the residential school. It is difficult to hear his stories. There was so much abuse. Physical. Sexual. Children were just taken from their families. He spent so many years there.

My (Melissa) dad was taken as a small child. He was forced to learn English. Forced to give up his language. Beaten if he spoke his native language. The fear from that experience continues today.

PumpTalk: How do the experiences like those of your family members impact the Nation today?

Fast forward… now you’re a survivor and come home... to what? Your parents are afraid... if they are still alive. You are scared to talk, scared of your own ceremonies. Scared of your emotions. Sometimes survivors can’t function. As a child, they didn’t get what they needed. Didn’t get love. Didn’t get hugs. Not taught life skills when they were young.

So now, as adults, they can’t work. Or they don’t know how to be a parent. And sometimes their children are taken away.

Every time you go down our (main) road, you still see the house that the Indian Enforcement Officer lived in. We see it every day. It is a constant reminder. People struggle with it every day. Some people are able to hang on. Our elders are strong. But we wonder about the generations now. What is going to happen to our children? Our grandchildren?

PumpTalk: What is the Nation doing to try to heal this trauma?

Our elders are trying to help us recover our language and our culture. Being able to speak in our original language is so important. My (Helena) son is four years old and is learning the Dakota language.

Residential school survivors were made to feel bad about participating in their culture. But some families are able to make the choice to teach their children. My (Melissa) dad made the choice to teach his children about our culture. And I’m teaching my children.

On the reserve, we’ve developed a Family Services program – the Dakota Tiwahe Services – that works with youth. Teaching traditional things: medicine taking, making traditional dresses, moccasins. Things that people normally wouldn’t know. Plus they help keep Sioux Valley children in Sioux Valley. We don’t want them fostered out. Children need to stay with their culture. We also have a Health Centre on the reserve that offers counseling.

PumpTalk: How can Canadians help heal the trauma?

We need to do more truth telling. Don’t sugar coat the past. Don’t just read a book… unless it’s written by an Indigenous author. Go to a reserve. Participate in events. Meet an elder and ask to hear their story. Get a better understanding of true Canadian history.

One example of something that every Canadian can do is to take the free course at the University of Alberta on Indigenous Canada. Canadian actor Dan Levy is also taking this course and he hosts a chat following each class.

PumpTalk: What will you be doing on Orange Shirt Day?

Our whole team will wear orange shirts that week. We liked being asked about their meaning. And we’re thankful that Suncor and Petro-Canada are willing to help get the word out.

But Orange Shirt Day is also a reminder about the bad things that were done to kids.

These are not easy truths. Recognize that racism is still happening. Don’t tell us to “move on.” Don’t tell us that “this isn’t your land anymore” and “we have to co-exist.” If you are not Indigenous, you are an immigrant. Don’t push us away.

PumpTalk: What would you like to see Canadians do on Orange Shirt Day?

Canadians need to reach out and ask and get a better understanding of Canadian history. To truly understand cause and effect. When you see the shirts... it’s a reminder that, originally, we were whole.

I see an orange shirt and I see a sea of little faces... of children who were stripped from their families. So, when you see an Indigenous person today who is lost and wandering, remember that it is not their fault. At age five, they were ripped from their families. They didn’t get the skills they needed when they were young.

Canadians need to ask: Where does it stop? When does the chain break?

The broken person that white people are calling a “loser,” a “no good Indian” … ask them what happened that day they were taken. How would you feel, and your kids feel if the shoe was on the other foot?

Every Child Matters. Even if they are now an adult. We were once and still are warriors. But our battle now is a battle for true acceptance.

PumpTalk: Helena and Melissa… thank you. I cannot express how moved and changed I am by hearing your stories. I appreciate you trusting me and am honoured to share them with our readers.

Wopida Tanka ... a big thank you to you and your readers for listening with open ears to our stories. Doshta ake ‘ ... See you soon.

If you would like to take another step towards gaining Indigenous awareness and reconciliation, please check out these resources.

~Kate T.

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