Orange Shirt Day. Have you ever wondered how it got its name, what it represents?
Orange Shirt Day is an event, created in 2013, to educate people and promote awareness in Canada about the Indian residential school system and the impact it has had on Indigenous communities for over a century and an impact that continues today. It is a day to honour the approximately 150,000 First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children who were taken away from their families, their villages, their culture, and their very life and forced to live in residential schools run by churches at the will of the Canadian government. Orange Shirt Day is a day to pause and think of the thousands of children who survived and the thousands who died in the schools, many buried in unmarked graves far from their families, and whose deaths were never recorded almost as if they never existed, as if their life and death were unimportant. It is estimated that roughly 6000 children died in the residential school system.
Phyllis Webstad is the Executive Director of the Orange Shirt Society and lives in Williams Lake, B.C. Phyllis was the impetus behind Orange Shirt Day. Phyllis’ grandmother was a residential school survivor. All ten of her children went to residential schools and at the age of six in 1973, Phyllis was excited to be heading off to school. She remembers her ‘granny’ taking her to town to buy a new shirt for the occasion. She recalls seeing the bright orange shirt and feeling like the colour of the shirt reflected the bright excitement she felt. Her grandmother bought her the beautiful bright orange shirt and they returned home. The next day, Phyllis donned her bright new shirt as she left for school at St Joseph’s Mission residential school. Once at school, the nuns gave her the school uniform and took away her beautiful bright orange shirt. Phyllis never saw her orange shirt again.
To Phyllis, the colour orange is forever linked to her experiences at residential school. It at first represented how no one cared and her feelings didn’t matter, “I felt like I was worth nothing. All of us little children were crying and no one cared.” Now the colour and the shirt have become a symbol of hope and reconciliation. The message that goes with Orange Shirt Day is that “Every Child Matters”.
September 30th was picked for Orange Shirt Day because it was around that time when the children were taken away to school. Initially, Orange Shirt Day was envisioned as a way to encourage and promote the continuation of conversations surrounding all aspects of Residential Schools in Williams Lake and the Cariboo Region of British Columbia. Ince that first event in 2013 it has expanded across the country and beyond.
Earlier this fall two former residential schools were declared as Sites of Historical Importance. While the Shubenacadie Residential School in Nova Scotia burned to the ground some years after it closed, the Portage la Prairie Residential School still stands. The Minister of Environment and Climate Change Jonathan Wilkinson said the residential school system itself will be labelled an event of “national historic significance.” In order to “ensure that this part of our history is never forgotten or repeated.” Chief Dennis Meeches of the Long Plain First Nation, hopes to turn the Portage la Prairie site into a museum or library with a garden honouring survivors. He says that he doesn’t want to see the residential school torn down. “We can’t erase that history. There will, come a time when all of our survivors will have gone on,” Meeches said. “A national historic site - that designation is forever.”
The residential school system was Canada’s own holocaust. While the outright goal of the residential school system was not to bring about the physical death of children who attended, as the gas chambers of WWII were, they were designed and run to bring about their cultural death. The immediate deaths that resulted from disease, malnutrition, abuse, and ultimately the failure to thrive were merely an unfortunate statistical consequence. The horrors and atrocities of German Concentration Camps have been part of Saskatchewan school curriculum for years as has the recognition that it is only through awareness and a commitment to Never Again ideology that society can hope to prevent any such repeat of history. However, the atrocities of the residential schools remained hidden as the victims remained silent through fear and shame. The general public in Canada remained blissfully ignorant of the full truth of what happened behind those walls and unfortunately, once reports started to emerge many non-Indigenous individuals in this fair country held the attitude that they, the victims, should just get over it. Survivors of WWII concentration camps are not told to “get over it” and yet multiple generations of First Nations, Inuit, and Metis families who were forced year after year to send their children away into situations where they knew physical, psychological and perhaps even sexual harm was going to come to them, have been told to “just get over it”.
In conjunction with Orange Shirt Day 2020, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation hosted and online event which included a video Every Child Matters. It opens with a welcome by Elder Claudette Commanda who says in the video that the residential schools were about the children. Orange Shirt Day is about honouring the children. It is important to learn about this dark part of Canadian history because the impacts of part of history are still being felt, but also to show the courage, the resilience, the survival and the love the communities had and have for their children. The survivors are still here. “Reconciliation cannot happen without the truth, it begins with the truth, the foundation of truth. No matter how sad or how bad the truth may be, it must be told. The future belongs to the children. All the children.”
Residential schools broke families. Children who went to the schools did not experience parenting, they experienced brutal discipline, deprivation and a loss of identity as their Indigenous names were taken away and replaced with non-Indigenous names and in some cases they became nothing more than a number. Reconciliation means to Nikki Komaksiutiksak, Executive Director of Tunngasugit Inc. of Winnipeg, “rebuilding families. Rebuilding who we are as Inuit, so that our children are never hurt by anyone ever again.”
Hayalkangame/Carey Newman an Indigenous artist from British Columbia states in the video, “Reconciliation is a journey not a destination. This journey will last for generations and many things need to change along the way, from respecting each other, to the way that we treat this earth. Our futures are tied together. This means that the best hope for reconciliation lies in your [the children’s] hands and the hands of children who will be born in years to come.”
The video is available for viewing online at eduction.nctr.ca
Carol Baldwin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Wakaw Recorder