Orange Shirt Day: Teachings of Canada’s grim history of residential schools

By Nina Badwal
– August 2021 – 

Sept. 24, 2018. Cut-out orange t-shirts hanging on a clothesline in the hallway of Rose
Avenue Junior Public School with the slogan “Every Child Matters.” (Photo: Catherine Inglis)

The students of Rose Avenue Junior Public School in St. James Town are preparing for the new school year – and one of the first lessons they will learn in September is about the dark history of Canada’s residential school system for Indigenous children.  

September 30th marks Orange Shirt Day.  It’s a day when people all across Canada don orange shirts to honour the survivors of residential schools.  Catherine Inglis is a grade 4 teacher at Rose Avenue.  She says, “We always encourage children to wear orange on that day; most of the teachers are wearing orange on that day…I think for elementary students, because they are the same age as many of those who went to residential schools, kids as young as 4, 5 and 6 years old – it’s important for them to make that connection, that this was part of Canada’s history.” 

The idea for Orange Shirt Day came about in 2013 when Phyllis Webstad recounted the experience of her first day at St. Joseph’s Mission residential school in British Columbia. It was 1973; the 6-year-old wore a brand new orange shirt that her grandmother gave her.  When Phyllis got to school, she was stripped of her shirt and it was replaced with the institution’s uniform.  

The orange shirt now represents how the residential school system took away the Indigenous identity of its students.  The 30th of September was chosen because it represents the time of year when First Nations, Inuit and Métis children were taken away from their families for cultural assimilation.  More than 150,000 kids attended these schools from the 1830’s to the 1990’s.  Many students suffered physical and sexual abuse, and to this day survivors feel the pain that was inflicted upon them.  

“It’s a generational trauma that’s created.  Many Indigenous people I know, that have been residential school survivors, it has affected them.  It’s not an easy transition,” says Frank Pio, Indigenous Education Resource Teacher at the Toronto Catholic District School Board.  

“Let’s not forget that just because teachers inject a certain amount of Indigenous content in the schools and in the curriculum, we need to always be cognizant that reconciliation can’t be done in one year…It takes 7 generations for this to get through. So we need to make a strong effort to do more and it’s important to remember as one of the commissioners of the TRC Justice Murray Sinclair said, ‘Reconciliation is not an Indigenous problem, it’s a Canadian problem’.”

(Photos: Catherine Inglis)

Remains of Indigenous children found at former residential school site

The remains of 215 children were found buried on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation said in May.  Shortly after this discovery, the Canadian government introduced legislation to make September 30th the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation – a statutory holiday to commemorate the tragic legacy of residential schools in Canada.  

The main administrative building at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British
Columbia, circa 1970. (Photo: Library and Archives Canada)

“Everybody is calling this a discovery – it is not a discovery.  It’s a confirmation of things that residential school survivors have been trying to tell us for years.  The Truth and Reconciliation Commission told us.  So this is just the first of many that are going to be confirmations across the country,” says Joan Sorley of the Orange Shirt Society in B.C.  

She was right.  I interviewed Ms. Sorley for this article in early June.  On June 24th, the Cowessess First Nation announced that 751 unmarked graves were found at the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan.  And on June 30th, the Lower Kootenay Band in B.C. confirmed that 182 unmarked graves were found near the site of the former St. Eugene’s Mission School, just outside of Cranbrook.  Ground-penetrating radar was used in each of these searches.  More unmarked graves near former residential schools continue to be discovered across Canada.  

Most of the government funded schools were run by the Catholic Church.  Catholic community leaders and Canadian First Nations leaders have urged Pope Francis to apologize for the church’s role during this dark era.  “The Oblates of Mary Immaculate ran that school [in Kamloops].  They ran it on behalf of the federal government.  They did horrible things…The Oblates have apologized but the Catholic Church has not and probably won’t,” surmises Sorley.  She adds that an apology is not enough but it’s a start.  “When you apologize for something, it means that you want to be different, that you want to make amends.”  

Indigenous education teacher, Pio recalls something he was told by a prominent elder in the Aboriginal community and a residential school survivor himself: “He always said that the biggest thing we can do is – help Indigenous people gain our trust again. Because that’s what was broken, that is what was damaged.  Yes, there is definitely a sadness and anger but at the same time there is hope.”


Sources: National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, Orange Shirt Society and the Canadian Press.  

Where to purchase orange shirts by Indigenous designers:!

Source: Vancouver Magazine

2022-01-20T20:22:04+00:00August 3rd, 2021|Categories: children, Community, education, General, Indigenous, policy, youth|0 Comments

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