Today is Orange Shirt Day in Canada. Why?

Today, September 30, is Orange Shirt Day in Canada. Orange Shirt Day was inaugurated in 2013 with the goal of increasing awareness of Canada’s history of the indigenous residential school system, a history which is painfully in need of recognition and atonement. Hopefully this event will gain in participation every year and make a valuable contribution to the important path of healing and reconciliation.

Canada’s residential school system

I’m not going to go on at length about this shameful history and its legacy. It’s just too upsetting. But I’ll go through it briefly. For 165 years – believe it or not, from the first one opening in 1831 to the last one closing in 1996 – the Canadian government funded church-run boarding schools for indigenous children with the stated purpose of integrating them into our Eurocentric society. Another way of putting this was “to take the Indian out of the child.” When parents came to realize what was happening at the schools and tried to keep their children home, Mounties were actually dispatched to seize the children, however far-flung they were on the land, and forcibly take them to the schools. It was downhill from there. The children were removed from their families, their language, and their culture and beliefs. They were punished for speaking their own language. They had their own clothes removed and replaced with uniforms, their braids cut off, and boys and girls separated so that brothers and sisters were not even allowed to communicate.

Their education was paltry, their afternoons were spent working as the school help, the food was inadequate and nothing like what they were used to, outbreaks of illness were frequent and sometimes deadly. They lacked any caring environment, and beatings and abuse were legend. Slowly but surely, these children, deprived of any love and losing their own sense of identity as indigenous people, lost their connection to their own families. Not so slowly but just as surely, they lost any sense of self-worth as it was hammered into them that their culture was inferior and their people dirty. The impact of the residential schools – in fact, the intended impact – was what has been described by the UN as cultural genocide.

In total, something like 150,000 children went through the residential school system, in schools that for the most part were out-of-sight-out-of-mind to most Canadians. Few non-indigenous Canadians would have even known they existed. The devastating effect of this environment on its survivors (and that’s the operative word) has left many indigenous communities broken for generations. How do you regain a sense of self-worth and learn to be a parent and provide a nurturing environment when you never experienced it? How do you regain your culture, your language, and your traditions, the things that give you your self-respect and help form your identity? How to you cope with the aftermath of the abuse?

This is the enormous challenge that several of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations strive to address. It’s a work in progress, but steps are being made. Orange Shirt Day is one of those steps.

Why an orange shirt?

From the website:

Wearing an orange shirt and promoting the slogan, Every Child Matters, is an affirmation of our commitment to raise awareness of the residential school experience and to ensure that every child matters as we focus on our hope for a better future in which children are empowered to help each other.

The symbol of the orange shirt comes from a heart-rending story of the first day of school for 6-year old Phyllis Webstad, who had wrongly thought that going to school would be a good thing. In her own words:

“I went to the Mission for one school year in 1973/1974. I had just turned 6 years old. I lived with my grandmother on the Dog Creek reserve. We never had very much money, but somehow my granny managed to buy me a new outfit to go to the Mission school. I remember going to Robinson’s store and picking out a shiny orange shirt. It had string laced up in front, and was so bright and exciting – just like I felt to be going to school!

When I got to the Mission, they stripped me, and took away my clothes, including the orange shirt! I never wore it again. I didn’t understand why they wouldn’t give it back to me, it was mine! The color orange has always reminded me of that and how my feelings didn’t matter, how no one cared and how I felt like I was worth nothing. All of us little children were crying and no one cared.”

There are many stories like this of children’s introduction to their new schools and living situations, and many are far worse; Phyllis’s personal memory is the inspiration for the Orange Shirt.

What can we all do, everywhere?

Whether you are Canadian or not, whether you live in another country that will have had similar indigenous residential school histories, like Australia or the United States, or somewhere where indigenous peoples were not part of your history at all, the story of the dominant culture’s (so often the white man’s) treatment of people who are “not like them” will ring true. It’s the never-ending racism story writ large.

What you can do, in particular if you are largely protected from societal abuse because of the light colour of your skin, is stop and think about what these residential school experiences had to have been like for children far away from their home and how you would have coped with life after emerging from such an experience. An experience forced on you by the government of your country.

Stop and think about how all anyone wants – anyone – is to be treated fairly and respected for who they are. To be given the same chance as the next guy. Think about this and then put these thoughts into action every day.

Orange Shirt Day. Every child matters.

Mother Nature is wearing her Orange Shirt with pride

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27 Responses to Today is Orange Shirt Day in Canada. Why?

  1. Pingback: Orange Shirt Day has a new name | Robby Robin's Journey

  2. bernieLynne says:

    I was an adult living in Saskatchewan when the last residential school here closed – I had no idea..none whatsoever. It wasn’t hundreds of years ago. Those children at school in 96 are the age of my children. The fall out will last for generations to come as they will have to fight their way back to their cultural, parenting and core values. We must all do our part to accept this past, wear our orange shirts and tell the stories. I’m still researching where to find a paper copy of the Truth and Reconciliation to read (starting at my library). Thanks for bringing this subject into the light.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      It’s amazing how the residential schools were sort of hidden in plain sight for decades and decades. They really were. Most of us had no idea and yet they were in our midsts. So much to atone for.

      • bernieLynne says:

        When the topic really came to light I honestly thought it had been a 10 to 30 year period back in early 1900’s. I was totally astounded to find out it ended in 1996 in Sask. But sadly some still need to leave their northern communities to get high school years and that isn’t kind to them. I am thinking of all the deaths in Thunder Bay the last few years. It’s so sad that we can’t all recognize what the systemic racism is doing to the victims and to our society. We each need to rise above it.

        • Jane Fritz says:

          Yes, there’s a brutally soul-searching book about the troubled lives of the northerners who need to board in Thunder Bay to attend HS, The Seven Feathers by Tanya Talaga. It doesn’t put the Thunder Bay police in a very good light, to say the least.

  3. nitinsingh says:

    Informative and interesting thnx to share this

  4. Roy McCarthy says:

    What a terrible story Jane. Keep telling it as people are hearing these things, knowing these things perhaps for the first time. The more awareness spreads then hopefully compassion will spread also. Never mind that ‘times were different then’, how can anyone have thought it the correct way to deal with young children?

    But few nations can hold their heads up with pride at their past. Jersey has its own sins to atone for from the way it treated its disadvantaged children for many years while the rest of the island’s population chose to turn a blind eye.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Yes, Roy, this appalling behaviour, historically rooted in a belief in Eurocentric superiority and backed by the church, needs to be publicly shamed at every opportunity. Getting beyond racism seems to be a never-ending battle, but it’s a battle that deserves to be fought as long as necessary.

  5. AnuRijo says:

    Timely post..😊👍🏻I was searching for the exact story behind for answering my little girl’s doubts on orange shirt day..!!

  6. Reblogged this on chopkins2x3 and commented:
    It’s Orange Shirt Day in Canada. Find out more by checking out this blog.

  7. barryh says:

    Thanks for sharing that, Jane. That’s one story I knew nothing about, having never visited Canada. I know similar things happened in Australia. Of course, this is our shared history, as the original settlers came from Europe and no doubt brought their attitudes with them. This colonising racial attitude is the eternal shame of Europe, which destroyed indigenous cultures around the world and stole the lands of peoples who never even conceived that land could be owned. So sad that these racial attitudes are still around and live on in bubbles inflamed by social media.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      You describe the root cause of all of this heartbreak perfectly, Barry. It happened in the US, too. Racism is one of most egregious shamed of mankind as far as I’m concerned. Sadly, it seems to alive and well, and living pretty well everywhere. One has to look no further than the white supremacy issue during the “presidential” debate last night. 😥

  8. This is another time when I wish WordPress had a dislike button – not because I dislike your post, but fervently dislike this horrific history in our country. Yet, this was the reality everywhere colonialism planted its feet. Thank you for sharing this important post.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks, Carol. It’s horrific and shameful history for sure. Now if we would only take MAJOR steps towards atoning and proactively addressing systemic racism. I suppose one step at a time is better than no steps, but there’s so much work to be done.

      • Baby steps, so far. I cringe when I hear people say things like “that’s happened a hundred years ago, time they let it go”. Obviously they are completely unaware of the impacts it has had on generations and continues to do so. It is a horrible thing. How are parents supposed to know how to parent when they have never been parented themselves, and indeed have suffered so much trauma and abuse? It’s a horrific cycle that started with residential school, and other horrors visited upon indigenous people by the whole colonialism and assimilation actions that had a tremendous impact. Impacts that continue to reverberate today.

        • Jane Fritz says:

          OMG. How terrible that people would think that. First of all, it’s been far more recent than 100 years. Far more recent! And secondly, as you say, the trauma inflicted continues through multiple generations, as you say. Not to mention the continuing overt racism in so many places, including in policing and now we reminded also healthcare.

        • It is terrible. It just goes to show how much more awareness is needed. I agree with you, obviously, and I do hope many, many more people are educated around all these issues.

  9. Yes! A sad story whose lesson we would do well to heed.

  10. Thanks for sharing and it certainly strikes home amid the latest news from Quebec.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      It certainly does, Wayne, it certainly does. A gut-wrenching news item. It is a powerful reminder that ignorance and racism is alive and well, no matter where we find ourselves. We’ve all got to be part of the fight to change that.

  11. Inkplume says:

    Your post is so timely. I’m still in shock at the treatment of an indigenous woman in Joliette, a small town in Quebec, by two female healthcare workers. While screaming in pain, she live-streamed, unbeknownst to the workers, their comments to her. The disrespect is astonishing. In French, they say “she is only good for fu…ing” As she groans in pain, one asks “Are you finished fooling around? You are so thick.” The video aired on last night’s news where they reported she had died, leaving seven children. We still have a lot of work to do.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Oh, Linda, what is wrong with human beings??! I had read a shorter version of this news article last night, but not the actual dialogue. So cruel and ignorant, it makes me weep. We have way too much work to do. 😥

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