Difficult Discussions

My children just brought home a letter from school about Orange Shirt Day. For my readers without kids, or who aren’t in Canada, Orange Shirt Day is September 30th and it was started to remember the residential schools and the children who were sent there.

My son was reading me the note in the car on the way home and afterwards I said, “That sounds like a very good idea.” My daughter then added, “Oh, I don’t really want to wear an orange shirt” in that infuriating tone that young girls seem to manage with ease.

“Now hold on just a minute,” I said. “I’m going to explain something to you.”

And I did.

You see, Orange Shirt Day for residential schools and Pink Shirt Day for bullying and poppies for Remembrance Day, is all about remembering, of course, but it’s about MORE than remembering. It’s about discussion.

A friend of mine online said her children were asking her about WWII and Nazis and she was wondering if they were old enough for that conversation and how to start it and what to say. And considering the political climate in North America right now I’m not sure it’s a conversation any parent can or should avoid for long. But the question still stands: at what age? And what is appropriate to tell them?

I took the opportunity in the car the other day to explain that the government took children away from their families and locked them in schools where they couldn’t speak their language, or wear their favourite clothes, or practice their religion or cultural traditions, where they were beaten for breaking the rules, all because the government and the church thought they were uncivilized. I told them that some of the children died there. And it hit home for them because their cousin is Dakota-Ojibway and they didn’t ever want their cousin taken away from them and beaten and killed. Because I told them we remember for two reasons: to tell survivors that we see them, that we acknowledge what happened to them, and we remember so it will not happen again.

Last November we talked about hatred. We talked about people being locked up and hurt and killed for looking different, for speaking different languages, for loving different people, or for praying to a different god. And because they have friends and classmates of every skin tone, because they have friends of various religions, and because they have family who are gay that explanation hit home and they do not want to see it happen again.

Did I tell them about gas chambers and mass graves? No. Did I tell them about the starvation and the forced marches? No. They are too young for those details. But I did tell them that many young men went over there to fight for an end to these bad things and that some of them, a lot of them, died over there so that those bad things would stop and that if we want to remember them we have to do more than wear a poppy and sing the national anthem – we have to work to make sure that hatred stays out of our country.

To remember is to work for peace.

To remember is to uphold the promise: Never Again. Not anywhere. Not to anyone. NEVER AGAIN.

My children are 5 and 7. It will be a few years before they are ready for anything more in depth than what I’ve already told them. But this message is hitting home for them and sinking in. And it’s all because of a letter about orange shirts.


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