Orange Shirt Day began in 2013 as a day for all Canadians to reflect on Canada’s long and painful history of the Residential School System, of forcibly removing Indigenous children from their homes and taking them to Residential Schools far from home. The intentions were bad enough – to “take the Indian out of the child” – but the methods used at the schools were light-years beyond anything that could possibly be justified by any measure. It was cultural genocide at the least and unspeakable abuse (and death) of countless numbers of children at the worst. Not to mention their families left behind, not knowing what was happening to them. And all this cruelty was perpetrated in Residential Schools that were run by churches on behalf of the Canadian government.
You can learn more about why Orange Shirt Day is so important and how it came to be called Orange Short Day in the post I wrote on this date last year: Today is Orange Shirt Day in Canada. Why?
This year Orange Shirt Day has a new name, hopefully bringing increased awareness, and hopefully also leading towards real reconciliation. The new National Day for Truth and Reconciliation was proclaimed by Parliament as a federal statutory holiday earlier this year, to be observed every year on September 30. It is meant to be a day of learning and reflection. Opportunities abound across the country to raise your awareness, from listening at any time during the day to CBC’s all-day broadcast of Indigenous music and stories to attending special events being offered to the public in cooperation with Indigenous communities. There’s no doubt that some people will just use it as a day to be off work rather than learn and reflect, just as some do with Remembrance Day. However, many, many Canadians are taking this observance seriously; the hope is that this number will grow every year. The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is an acknowledgement of shameful wrong-doing and the beginning of more widespread understanding of the multi-generational damage inflicted on the Indigenous peoples in this place now known as Canada. This can only be a good thing. A step in the right direction. A direction towards ending systemic racism. A direction towards honouring 200+ year old treaty rights. A direction towards instilling respect for Indigenous peoples and their cultures and languages. Towards self-determination.
The map below shows the range of Indigenous peoples of North America before the arrival of Europeans. It is difficult to determine what the population might have been, but estimates range from 4-7 million people to a high of 18 million. Needless to say, horrifying numbers of Indigenous people were killed after the arrival of the Europeans, many by the diseases they brought with them for which the native populations had no immunity, but also by countless brutal killings and full-on massacres, not to mention the settlers’ decimation of the vast buffalo herds specifically to deny the native population their main food source. (Click on the map for more details.)
If you locate the island that we now call Newfoundland in the northeast part of the map above (coloured blue), you will see that its indigenous people were the Beothuks. “Were” is the operative word. The first Beothuks killed by Europeans were in early encounters with Vikings 1000 years ago. That was very much just the beginning of centuries of devastating encounters with Europeans. The very last remaining Beothuk, a young woman named Shanawdithit, died of TB in 1829. How do we absorb that reality: the complete extermination of the Beothuk people? This is an image of Shanawdithit, the last Beothuk on Earth.
The map below shows the location of all the residential schools in Canada. A few of them started very early, when the policy was first put in place by the government in 1831. Most schools were in operation by 1870; the last one closed in 1996. They were out of sight, out of mind for most Canadians. Not showing are Indian Day Schools to which other Indigenous children were forcibly sent, including in provinces that did not have in-province Residential Schools. Personal accounts I have heard in New Brunswick indicate that the treatment of the children at these schools was not substantially better than those who were sent out of province to Residential Schools. The schools worked hard to instill trauma however they could. How do people recover from this kind of abuse and intentional destruction of self-worth? How can they trust again? How can they function?
The map that follows shows the percentage of Indigenous people currently residing in each province, territory, and state in North America.
And this is my orange shirt, worn today with respect and humility.