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Port Alberni’s iconic ‘Orange Bridge’ turns orange again for Truth and Reconciliation

Tseshaht First Nation hopes bright orange accents will change narrative of bridge
Volunteers help paint parts of the pedestrian portions of the Orange Bridge (Riverbend Bridge) on Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022. (PHOTO COURTESY KEN WATTS)

Port Alberni’s iconic Orange Bridge crossing the Somass River is orange again. Or at least parts of it are.

The actual bridge structure—formally named Riverbend Bridge—hasn’t been orange since the early 1980s, but the name “Orange Bridge” stuck. Even if the bridge has been silver for more than four decades.

The bridge has a far more sombre history than the argument over its nomenclature. Children being transported to Alberni Indian Residential School from other communities around B.C. were driven over the bridge on the way to the school. Many survivors refuse to return to the area, or to cross the bridge into Tseshaht First Nation territory. The new orange paint is changing the narrative, said Tseshaht elected Chief Councillor Wahmeesh Ken Watts.

Watts said the nation receives constant requests to push for a paint job on the bridge. He said the nation engaged its residential school survivors a few months ago to ask their thoughts before approaching the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure.

Once they started conversations with the province they learned how expensive it is to paint a bridge, and the effort that goes into protecting the river below. “This was a happy medium and compromise with the province,” he said.

The orange colour was matched from an Orange Shirt Day T-shirt, which is brighter than the original bridge colour.

Once plans were made for painting day “it all just happened organically,” Watts said. Some survivors came to help paint over aspects of the pedestrian portion of the bridge, as did Tseshaht staff and council. Mainroad Contracting crews managed traffic and helped with the painting. They donated flagging support staff and paint for the project. Billybeauty Marketing of Port Alberni provided stencils for black lettering that spells out “Every child matters” on one of the approaches.

One survivor, Chuck August, rode his motorized scooter from Tsawaayuus Rainbow Gardens to the bridge so he could help paint. August told Watts the orange is welcoming now. “I hope it uplifts all the survivors who cross the bridge again,” Watts added.

Students in Grades 5 and 6 from Haahuupayak School joined painters on Tuesday. Another class from the same grades walked to the bridge to see the finished work on Wednesday morning; drivers in cars and trucks honked and waved at the students as they celebrated the change to the bridge, teacher Tammi Greenwood said.

“It was very exciting for them.”

Seeing youth participate in the process was a highlight for Watts. “It was pretty awesome to see the students,” he said.

The bright orange approaches with “Every child matters” in large black stencilled letters will greet people walking in the Orange Shirt Day walk on Friday, Sept. 30 for National Truth and Reconciliation Day.

The walk begins at Harbour Quay at 11 a.m. and will wend its way to the Maht Mahs Gym on Tseshaht First Nation territory. Singing, dancing, a presentation, lunch and supper are planned for the afternoon and evening.

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Residential school survivors Wally Samuel Sr. and his wife, Donna Samuel, help paint over a support at the Orange Bridge (Riverbend Bridge) on Sept. 27, 2022. (FACEBOOK PHOTO)

Susie Quinn

About the Author: Susie Quinn

A journalist since 1987, I proudly serve as the Alberni Valley News editor.
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