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Old bridge to Alberni Indian Residential School repainted orange in memory of school’s painful past

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

A portion of an old bridge that crosses the Somass River on Central Vancouver Island has been returned to its original orange colour in time for the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on Friday in honour of residential school survivors and those who did not make it back home.

Riverbend Bridge, known locally as the Orange Bridge, crosses the river in Port Alberni at Highway 4 and Falls Street, near the Tseshaht administrative building. The bridge was painted orange for many years before it was painted grey in mid-1990.

Tseshaht elected Chief Ken Watts said a working group of Alberni Indian Residential School survivors asked the First Nation to repaint the bridge orange to help remind visitors and community members of the painful past of their experiences at the nearby residential school.

“The survivors really wanted to make sure that we acknowledge them and really show our solidarity as well as show our resilience and try to make it a happy place when they pass the bridge,” Watts told Gregor Craigie, the host of CBC’s On the Island, on Wednesday.

The bridge brings back painful and traumatic memories of being taken to the residential school, he said, and survivors want it returned to orange to signal a new beginning.

He said residential school survivors, Indigenous students and community volunteers have been lending crews a helping hand since Monday, painting pillars and railings. 

A reminder of what happened

Watts said the project was a collaboration with the Tseshaht First Nation and the provincial Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure.

“The province shared the cost, so that’s a happy compromise,” he said.

Wally Samuel, a survivor of the Alberni Indian Residential School, said having the bridge returned to orange has been healing for him, but there are survivors in the community who still find it hard to cross it.

Samuel said the bridge reminds many survivors of their time at the Alberni residential school. (Submitted by Ken Watts)

“This is the way to the residential school, and it reminds them of … a lot of bad things that happened to individuals,” Samuel told CBC News. 

“The school is just half a block up, and a lot of my friends still can’t go up that road because it’s going to a bad place.”

He said the orange bridge will serve as a reminder to visitors and community members of what happened at residential schools across Canada.

“People were in denial that we were treated like this,” said Samuel.

“We are hoping it will help us fellow survivors take things back, take over the old pain, but it’s hard.”

The Tseshaht First Nation will hold an Orange Shirt Day Walk for the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on Sept. 30 at 10:30 a.m. at Harbour Quay.

Participants will cross River Road and walk to the Orange Bridge.

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for survivors and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

Mental health counselling and crisis support are also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat at www.hopeforwellness.ca.

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