Time to reflect – Orange Shirt Day

Orange Shirt Day was first observed on September 30, 2013, to honor Indigenous children who were forcibly taken from their families and placed in residential schools in Canada. These atrocities took place from the 1860s through the 1990s under the auspices of the Canadian government’s St. Joseph mission.

Commemorating this day gives ourselves time to reflect, study, and educate our young ones more about the horrific legacy of Residential Schools in Canada.

Residential School System in Canada

The recent discovery of nearly 1,300 unmarked graves at the grounds of four old residential schools in western Canada reiterates the brutalities Canadian children experienced during their time in Residential Schools.

Brought into being by the amendments to the Indian Act, 1876, the residential schools were predominately sponsored and operated by the Canadian government and Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, and United churches. Amendments to the Indian Act 1876 during 1920 made attendance at a residential school mandatory for all Indigenous children between seven and sixteen. 

Between the 1860s and the 1990s, nearly 150,000 First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children between the ages of 4 and 16 “attended” residential schools in Canada due to such modifications.

A Cultural Genocide

“…[I]f anything is to be done with the Indian, we must catch him very young. The children must be kept constantly within the circle of civilized conditions.” (1) – Nicholas Flood Davin, “Report on Industrial Schools for Indians and Half-Breeds,” 1879.

“I want to get rid of the Indian problem. I do not think that the country should protect a class of people who can stand alone continuously… Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department.” (2) – Duncan Campbell Scott, Deputy Minister of Indian Affairs in Canada,1920

Established as an attempt of Cultural genocide by the TRC Report 2015, the residential school system was based on the clearly stated goals of assimilating Indigenous peoples, deemed the most effective way to “civilize” them. However, Indigenous children were traumatized by these schools, which separated them from their families, forced them to speak English or French instead of their ancestral languages, disconnected them from their culture and customs, and converted to Christianity to fit into Canadian society.

Since then, the government has admitted that this strategy was incorrect, harsh, and unsuccessful and has issued an official apology to Canada’s Indigenous peoples.

Orange Shirt Day

Why Was September 30th Chosen to Observe Orange Shirt Day?

This date was chosen because it coincides with the same time of the year when trucks, buses, and cattle carts of Residential schools during the 1860s to 1990s would “collect” their children and take them to a brutal new world of cultural assimilation, mental, sexual, and physical abuse, shame, and hardship in the name of “civilization.”

Why Was Orange Shirt Chosen as the Symbol of Orange Shirt Day?

The orange shirt in Orange Shirt Day is based on Phyllis Jack Webstad’s experience at one of the Indian residential schools.

While sharing her story at a St. Joseph Mission (SJM) Residential School Commemoration Project and Reunion event in Williams Lake, British Columbia, in May 2013, Phyllis Jack Webstad, a Northern Secwepemc (Shuswap) from the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation and a survivor of Indian residential school operated St. Joseph mission, recalled her first day at residential school at the age of six, when she was stripped of her clothes including a new orange shirt that her grandmother had gifted her to wear on the first day of the school. “I didn’t understand why they wouldn’t give it back to me; it was mine!” (3)

This narrative provided the foundation for what has evolved into a nationwide movement to acknowledge, honor, and demonstrate a collective commitment to ensuring that “Every Child Matters”—the official tagline of Orange Shirt Day. 

We are honored to invite Ms. Phyllis Webstad Founder/Ambassador of the Orange Shirt Society, to conduct an online session on October 26, 2021, to talk about her residential school experience and the importance of Orange Shirt Day. We’ll share more details soon how you can attend.

How Are the Tagline of the Movement and Phyllis’s Story Related?

While recounting the agony she went through during her one year stay in the Residential School, Phyllis says “the colour orange has always reminded me of my experiences at residential school and 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.” (4)

The tagline “Every Child Matters” conveys the experiences of all children who suffered the same traumas as Phyllis. The slogan also emphasizes the oppressive mentality of the Residential School system, which valued its ideology over the lives and happiness of Indigenous children. 

Orange Shirt Day and the Fight Against Racism and Bullying

Aside from raising awareness about the legacy of Canada’s residential schools, the Orange Shirt Day campaign is also a battle against racism and bullying.

People who attended residential schools carried with them the trauma of being separated from their families, disciplined for speaking their languages, and, far too frequently, mistreated at the hands of their caregivers for generations. And they continue to suffer racism and prejudice. 

It’s time to eradicate this scourge from our society. On Orange Shirt Day, we must commit to wearing orange shirts to honor survivors’ experiences and recognize that sad past. In addition, each of us must promote safe and inclusive settings for future generations of children.

Truth and Reconciliation 

While holding the Canadian government accountable for the “Cultural Genocide” of Residential Schools, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized through a written apology to Residential School children in 2008 and assured them that the Canadian government is trying to implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s 94 Calls to Action, which call on all levels of government — federal, provincial, territory, and aboriginal — to work together to alter laws and programs in a determined attempt to repair the damage.

The following is what Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in his apology: “The treatment of children in residential schools is a sad chapter in our history. . .  Two primary objectives of the residential school’s system were to remove and isolate children from the influence of their homes, families, traditions, and cultures, and to assimilate them into the dominant culture. These objectives were based on the assumption that aboriginal cultures and spiritual beliefs were inferior and unequal. Indeed, some sought, as it was infamously said, “to kill thein the child.” 

Today, we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country. The government now acknowledges that the consequences of the residential school’s policy were profoundly negative and that this policy has had a lasting and damaging impact on aboriginal culture, heritage, and language.

The legacy of residential schools has contributed to social problems that continue to exist in many communities today. It has taken extraordinary courage for the thousands of survivors that have come forward to speak publicly about the abuse they suffered. It is a testament to their resilience as individuals and the strength of their cultures. Therefore, on behalf of the government of Canada and all Canadians, I stand before you, in this chamber so central to our life as a country, to apologize to aboriginal peoples for Canada’s role in the residential school system.

To the approximately 86,000 living former students and all family members and communities, the government of Canada now recognizes that it was wrong to remove children from their homes forcibly, and we apologize for having done this. We now realize that it was wrong to separate children from vibrant cultures and traditions, that it created a void in many lives and communities, and we apologize for having done this. The burden of this experience has been on your shoulders for far too long.

The burden is properly ours as a government and as a country. The government of Canada sincerely apologizes and asks the forgiveness of the aboriginal peoples of this country for failing them so profoundly. We are sorry.” (5)

What is National Day for Truth and Reconciliation?

After passing unanimously in the Senate, the bill creating a national holiday to remember the tragic legacy of Canada’s residential schools got royal assent in June 2021.

September 30, widely recognized as Orange Shirt Day, became a statutory holiday known as National Day for Truth and Reconciliation with royal assent. Every employee in the federal government and federally controlled workplaces is entitled to this statutory vacation. 

The move to establish this day was taken quickly after the remains of about 215 students were discovered on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School by the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in late May of this year.

It’s hard to know what to do and where to start with reconciliation and reparations. But one immediate suggestion is education. Start by reviewing the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. We can all make a difference.

Innovation Credit Union will be closed September 30th to commemorate the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. Our hearts are with those who have endured unimaginable pain and suffering from attending a residential school or from the loss of children and family members at the hands of the residential school system. Wishing love, peace, comfort, and education on this important day.

For more information about the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, visit the Government of Canada website.

References:

  1. Report on Industrial Schools for Indians and Half-Breeds. (1879). https://www.canadiana.ca/view/oocihm.03651/3?r=0&s=1
  2. National Archives of Canada, Record Group 10, vol. 6810, file 470-2-3, vol. 7, 55 (L-3) and 63 (N-https://www.facinghistory.org/stolen-lives-indigenous-peoples-canada-and-indian-residential-schools/historical-background/until-there-not-single-indian-canada
  3. Phyllis’ Story. (n.d.). Orange Shirt Day. Retrieved September 27, 2021, from https://www.orangeshirtday.org/phyllis-story.html
  4. Phyllis’ Story. (n.d.). Orange Shirt Day. Retrieved September 27, 2021, from https://www.orangeshirtday.org/phyllis-story.html
  5. Government of Canada. (2008, June 11). Statement of apology to former students of Indian Residential Schools. https://www.rcaanc-cirnac.gc.ca/eng/1100100015644/1571589171655