Orange Shirt Day, also known as the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, is on September 30. It is a day where the children who were sent to residential schools in Canada are honoured and we learn more about the true history behind those schools.
In Canada, the Indian residential school system was a network of boarding schools for Indigenous peoples. Attendance was mandatory from 1894 to 1947 and the last residential school closed in 1996. The network was funded by the Canadian government’s Department of Indian Affairs and administered by Christian churches.
“Two primary objectives of the residential schools’ system were to remove and isolate children from the influence of their home, families, traditions and cultures, and to assimilate into the dominant culture,” reads “An Overview of the Indian Residential School System” on anishnabek.ca. It is estimated that more than 150,000 Indigenous, Inuit, and Métis children attended Indian residential school.
The Canadian government operated residential schools in partnership with the Anglican, Catholic, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches, among others. Residential schools operated in all Canadian provinces and territories except Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland.
Wearing an orange shirt on and around September 30 is one of the ways Canadians and residents of Turtle Island remember those students and their families. But why do we wear an orange shirt?
The Orange Shirt
Phyllis Webstad was given an orange shirt by her grandmother for her very first day of school at St. Joseph’s Mission residential school in British Columbia. The “orange shirt” in Orange Shirt Day refers to that shirt. When Phyllis got to school, her clothes were taken away, including her new orange shirt that was never returned. Phyllis told CBC news that the colour orange has always reminded her of her experiences at residential school, saying, “How my feelings didn’t matter, how no one cared and I felt like I was worth nothing. All of us little children were crying and no one cared.”
Phyllis wants to convey the message that every child matters — every day. She started Orange Shirt Day to educate people about residential schools and to fight bullying and racism.
At residential schools, children were forbidden from speaking their native languages. Many were physically and sexually abused, and some were made to work for white families. Until the 1950s, Indigenous children at residential schools in Canada died at between two and five times the rate of their peers elsewhere in the country.
There are many ways you can get involved in Orange Shirt Day; wear an orange shirt on September 30, share Phyllis’ story at your workplace or with friends and family, support Indigenous authors by reading and buying their books about residential schools; continue to talk about the true history of the residential school system in Canada.