Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Orange Shirt Day

Tomorrow is Orange Shirt Day.

In 1960 Phyllis Webstad was a young 6 year old, living on the Dog Creek reserve in northern B.C.  She was excited to be going to school for the first time, and her grandmother had scrimped and saved to buy her a bright orange shirt to wear.  But when she arrived at school, as in all the residential schools apparently, the children were all stripped, bathed, and de-liced.  She never saw her orange shirt again; presumably all the clothes had been burned.

Phyllis was left feeling totally worthless after the indoctrination she experienced at that school, and finally entered therapy at age 27.  She finally spoke publicly about her orange shirt on Sept. 30th, 2013 and the image quickly caught on.  This spring the federal government made Orange Shirt Day a federal holiday.  As I wrote previously, it's intended as a 'Remembrance Day' for the children, with the goal of making Canadians more aware of the lost children as well as the survivors.  

Orange Shirt Day appears to be a uniquely Canadian day, emerging from local initiatives much as 'Juneteenth' did in the U.S.  Today Phyllis has written three children's books telling the 'Orange Shirt' story, and now tours the country promoting understanding of residential schools at today's public schools.  The U.S, has recently announced that it too will attempt to identify all Indian Boarding Schools and to identify all children who died.

Deb Haaland, the new Secretary of the Interior, is herself Laguno Pueblo, the first native American to serve as a Cabinet Secretary.  She was sworn in wearing a beautiful bright ribbon skirt!

It took me awhile to understand how the inter-generational trauma has affected generations of survivors.  It's the simple fact that survivors never experienced growing up in loving families during their own childhood, and thus have no understanding of what it means to be a loving parent.  Just as abuse is passed down the generations because the next generation models their parents, so too is this the case in Indigenous communities.

Phyllis' first book tells the ominous story just through the image on its cover!  It's hard to see this just through the eyes of a six year old, whose exciting first day at school had been turned into a terrifying ordeal, but Phyllis survived after attending that school for only one year.

In the News!

After the publicity surrounding the 215 unmarked graves discovered at the Kamloops School, interest in Orange Shirt Day (officially now the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, has exploded across the country.

All three universities I've been associated with are holding special online events tomorrow.  I plan to attend (by zoom) the lecture at Western on residential schools.  At Guelph where I taught for over 30 years, a 'Nokum's House' will be built in the Arboretum grounds, as a meeting and research space for Indigenous scholars.  'Nokum' is the Ojibway word for grandmother.

Last July nine churches in Calgary had red paint daubed on the doors.  Grace Presbyterian Church decided to retain the red paint on its door rather than quickly moving to clean it off.  Interpreting the paint as an expression of grief rather than vandalism, the church has used this as a catalyst for ongoing discussions and engagement with the local Indigenous community.  They also held a service of lament for the children lost last Sunday.

The church we attend, which is also Presbyterian, has produced an issue of its quarterly newsletter providing several in-depth articles on the church's response.  The Presbyterian Church in Canada ran 9 residential schools, though most were taken over by the federal government in the 1920s.  They have issued a formal apology and taken a number of other steps toward reconciliation.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops recently issued a formal apology, and promised to raise $30 million to help support survivors of residential schools.  Indigenous groups have been hesitant to welcome this, as the Catholic Church has apologized and promised to raise millions before - but it hasn't happened.  As one leader said, 'we need to see action, not more words'!  

But it may turn out to be a positive step forward.  I expect many Priests are hearing of concern among their parishioners.  If our own minister hadn't mentioned it herself on Sunday, she would have heard from me!

Other programs, mostly online, can be found in several places.

NCTR, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, has a full week-long series of programs targeting schools, but open to the public.

APTN, the Aboriginal Peoples television Network, has a variety of interesting on-line programs available.

National Day for Truth and Reconciliation takes you to a government website where you can learn more about everything from Indigenous Languages to Indigenous History in Canada.

On CBC there have been several articles on different aspects of residential schools and reconciliation, as well as expressions of concern over stolen designs for orange shirts.  Buy your shirts (and other mementoes) from the Orange Shirt Society, or from a site that directs its profits there, to be sure you're getting an appropriate shirt.

And don't forget the children.


  1. The truth is sometimes so hard to hear but I am glad she wrote her book. It is hard to take back the hurt that happens but the world does need to know about it.

  2. There is much to be made up for and much to do, but it has to be done.

  3. I haven't seen her book. I would like to although I expect it might have me in a heap.

  4. Thank you once again for showing those of us south of your border how things are done in Canada. So very sad for the children and remembering is essential to keep it from happening again.

  5. As I sit here in wearing my orange shirt and watching Every Child Matters, I am struck by your final sentence. We cannot not forget the children, both the lost and those who survived, and those who came after.

    Thank you for this thoughtful post.

  6. A well done post Stew. Awareness is the key.

  7. this is so interesting, something i had no knowledge of!! back in the day, child abuse occurred in so many forms, things are better now but more could be done!! as a survivor of abuse, i know i have not dealt with it the way i should have. most just fold it up and tuck it away!!

  8. Always remember the Children. Always. Very real and interesting article. Thank you