How an orange shirt and a mother's story inspired Indigenous Social Services staff to become changemakers
It was September 30, 2017 – Orange Shirt Day – and Kari Paton, a Ministry of Social Services staff member, was wearing the iconic “Every Child Matters” shirt in recognition. As she walked down the street on her lunch break, a stranger pointed at her shirt and said “I think my children matter.” Kari responded, “They do, and your childhood matters too.” They continued to speak, and Kari learned about the woman’s trauma, residential school story, and her children, who were in the care of Social Services. She told Kari that she hadn’t told her story to her caseworker because she was afraid that they wouldn’t understand. As a Sixties Scoop survivor and Social Services staff member, Kari understood that hesitation, and she invited the woman’s caseworker to meet with them. The caseworker listened to the woman’s story, and this openness and understanding allowed their relationship to change for the better.
That moment, and many like it, was one of the motivations for Kari and a group of employees at the Ministry of Social Services to band together to support and empower Indigenous staff on their journeys toward Truth and Reconciliation.
The Team of Indigenous Employees of Saskatchewan, or TIES, was formed on behalf of Indigenous families and children throughout the province. Kari says that the group provides strength to one another by helping acknowledge and reconcile Canada’s colonial history. She believes this work is essential in helping the people of Saskatchewan form a path to grow in hope and heal together.
“As Indigenous employees at Social Services, we find our lives are touched by a commonality of the legacies of Residential Schools, Sixties Scoop, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and other generational traumas,” Kari said. “We are employees who want to make a difference in the lives of our people. We can be the change makers by sharing our stories to incorporate our culture along with the understanding of our people within the ministry.”
The term “TIES” itself is significant, as it represents tobacco ties within Indigenous culture. Ties are small bundles of tobacco made for ceremonies that are used in prayer and as offerings. On their own, pieces of tobacco leaf are small and brittle, but together they are strong. This connectedness gives them more purpose and resilience. The TIES team summarizes this sentiment in Cree as “Mâmawatoskêwak” or “they work together as a group, they work as a team.”
Through their work, TIES has boosted Indigenous leadership representation, organized cultural ceremonies, provided educational opportunities and supported the Ministry of Social Services’ work to become more inclusive. One initiative to note is their advocacy for Orange Shirt Day, which takes place on September 30 to recognize the victims of the Canadian Indian residential school system. The Ministry of Social Services began recognizing Orange Shirt Days on a monthly basis, to offer staff and those they serve more opportunities to come together in the spirit of Truth and Reconciliation.
“Orange Shirt Day is more than a calendar day,” said Kari. “It is recognition of the need for Truth and Reconciliation. This is an ongoing process where we reflect on what Truth and Reconciliation is all about. It starts with truth telling, listening and understanding.”
Kari has received updates from the woman she met on the street on Orange Shirt Day. She is now with her children and the family is doing well.
“It all started with an orange shirt, telling the truth about trauma and the residential school experience and just listening to a mom who was hurting,” said Kari.
To show openness to Truth and Reconciliation, purchase an orange shirt from a local Indigenous community organization or the official Orange Shirt Society web page. You can also review the 94 Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action, connect with a local Indigenous-serving organization or read Phyllis Webstad’s book The Orange Shirt Story, which inspired Orange Shirt Day.