The origins of Orange Shirt Day

When Indigenous children attended residential schools, they were treated as though they didn’t matter.

Almost 25 years after the last residential school closed down in Canada, the country is officially recognizing the horrors of residential schools as the first-ever National Truth and Reconciliation Day is marked this Sept. 30 – part of a changing tide that says, yes, their lives matter, too.

For the first time in the country’s history, Canada is marking the horrific legacy of residential schools and their impacts on Indigenous people with the inaugural Truth and Reconciliation Day, which parliament deemed an official federal holiday in June, a month after the discovery of 150 children’s remains at a former residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia horrified the nation, and the world.

Truth and Reconciliation Day falls on the same day Indigenous communities have been marking the dark legacy of residential schools since 2018, known as Orange Shirt Day.

The slogan for Orange Shirt Day – Every Child Matters – is a declaration that no matter how much they were ignored and dismissed during Canada’s residential school era, the lives of Indigenous children matter.

Orange Shirt Day and the slogan was inspired from the experience of residential school survivor Phyllis Webstad, whose brand-new, beautiful orange shirt was taken from her on her first day attending St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School in 1973 near Williams Lake, B.C.

“When my clothing, including my new orange shirt was taken, it didn’t matter how much I protested or told them (the nuns and priests) I wanted it back, they didn’t listen,” said Webstad during an online launch for the book Beyond the Orange Shirt on Monday. “This was the beginning of that feeling that I didn’t matter. We could be crying, we could be hungry, we could be sad, we could be lonely and our feelings did not matter. That’s where ‘Every Child Matters’ comes from. They were children. They mattered. And the ones who never made it home; they mattered. And in this day of reconciliation, every child matters.”

Agness Jack, Webstad’s aunt, also attended a residential school starting at age six in 1956, and said she counted the days and years until she could leave the residential school.

Both Jack and Webstad are from the Shuswap territory in British Columbia. Six generations of Webstad’s family story are recollected in the new book. Her grandmother, all the children, and a number of grandchildren attended St. Joseph’s Residential School.

“I would shut down my emotions, my feelings,” said Jack, of her experience. “I didn’t want to feel anything. I didn’t talk about the mission to my mom and dad, or to anyone else. When we sent letters home, they censored our letters.”

“It was a very unloving, uncaring place,” Jack says. “My language, my culture, the person that I was born to be wasn’t important. I had to become someone else.”

Six Nations of the Grand River is marking the day by giving employees the day off and honouring residential school survivors and those who never made it home.

Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation is holding a healing dance and walk at the corner of Hwy. 6 and Mississauga Road on Sept. 29 to honour residential school survivors and the over 5,000 children’s remains found in hidden graves at residential schools across the country since May.

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