Carson Meharg, 10, recently learned about the negative experiences of children who attended residential schools in Canada during classes at Westfield Public School in Tillsonburg.
“It started with his music teacher (Dan Dube), who dedicated one whole class to the Tragically Hip and the singer (Gord Downie), who went up to Indigenous places up north to visit some of these families who’s children never came back home,” said Carson’s mother, Jane Sage. “He (Downie) wrote a bunch of songs. They also watched a video about three children who ran away and followed railway tracks – and the three never made it home. I think that shook a lot of the kids, too. It was pretty dramatic for their age. And a long video about a boy who was taken to a school, what they ate and what they did, and if they didn’t follow certain rules that they would literally get abused in some shape or form. It was pretty deep. There was a lot of stuff that I didn’t even know.
“My son was so sad to see that somebody could actually hurt kids in that kind of way.”
In Jen Homick’s Grade 4 class, where they had an Indigenous library to learn about residential schools, they discussed ‘orange shirt day’ and how it began.
“In Mrs. Homick’s class they learned how bad it was, how the kids got taken away and never came home, and just the conditions they had to live in,” said Sage.
“I think that’s what shocked him, that kids had to be taken away from their families. It didn’t matter what they did, they had to go. They got into a lot of trouble if they didn’t go. And a lot of them didn’t come back home… ever.”
Homick and her students also talked about wearing orange or posting a sign in a window at home to show they were thinking of them.
Homick recalled Meharg saying, “Mrs. Homick, I have an idea. It’s a surprise.”
Meharg and his mother, Jane Sage, then created a memorial in honour of the children.
“I said I’ve got a good idea, we’ll cut out 215 shirts and number them for the children who didn’t have a name that died without anybody even knowing,” said Sage.
“When we did it, and we stood back, we were in shock. We were thinking ‘are we really going to get this many in our window?’ We realized that 215 was a lot of kids. He took into account, every one of those shirts was a boy or girl who never made it home… that died, at his age or younger.”
The paper shirts were both small and big to represent young and older children.
“And we numbered them because nobody knew their names,” said Sage. “When they went to those residential schools they had to lose their Indigenous name and a lot of them became a number. So that was the meaning behind the numbers, and the 215.
“He said, ‘I’m glad we don’t live like that, that they could come and take me at any time.’ I said, ‘Me too!’”
The display, which took about 90 minutes to arrange in the window, was still up last week.
“Some of our friends that drove by commented ‘wow.’ That was really nice, that somebody recognized it.”
As a family they traditionally put something in their window for holidays, but on this occasion Sage said it seemed much more dramatic.
“It was so many shirts.”
In the middle of the display they had a sign that read ‘Every child matters.’
“That took up a lot of space, but that was the theme of it.”