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Wednesday is Orange Shirt Day, when Canada honours survivors and others impacted by the legacies of residential schools.
All Canadians are encouraged to wear orange shirts and spend the day reflecting upon how residential schools have shaped life in this country.
Orange Shirt Day was supposed to be — and likely will become one day — Canada’s "National Day of Reconciliation" and sixth national holiday, but the bill that was supposed to make it so was prorogued for last fall’s federal election. The federal Liberals have it on their to-do list but COVID-19 has this way of interrupting everything.
Nevertheless, this is the seventh incarnation of the event, named in honour of residential school survivor Phyllis Webstad, who had her beautiful orange shirt (given to her by her grandmother) taken away from her when she attended a St. Joseph Mission residential school in B.C.
Webstad, who is Northern Secwpemc (Shuswap) from the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation (Canoe Creek Indian Band), was six years old at the time.
"When I got to the mission, they stripped me, and took away my clothes, including the orange shirt!" Webstad explains. "I didn’t understand why they wouldn’t give it back to me, it was mine! The colour 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."
Most Orange Shirt Day events this year are online.
The largest, by far, is called Every Child Matters and is being staged by the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (located at the University of Manitoba campus). The 90-minute taped event will be live-streamed at 11 a.m. on the NCTR Facebook page and APTN and available for anyone to watch afterwards. The NCTR announced more than 10,000 viewers are expected.
The event, which is primarily for teachers and students, will feature well-known leaders and activists, elders and residential school survivors such as Webstad. In honour of the day and event, Canada’s History magazine produced a special edition about residential school history and the importance of Orange Shirt Day; it is free for all Canadians on the magazine's website (canadashistory.ca).
A special part of Every Child Matters will be a celebration for survivors, honouring the many birthdays they missed out on at the schools.
This is not the only Orange Shirt Day event, though. There are marches, education days and forums everywhere. Some workplaces organize hikes, social media posts and political campaigns.
In non-COVID years, virtually every student at École River Heights in Winnipeg would walk to the site of the Assiniboia Residential School on Academy Street (only one building remains, housing the Canadian Centre for Child Protection) and perform a smudging ceremony while sharing stories, songs and prayers in Indigenous languages (none of which would have been allowed inside the school). This year, a small group of students are walking to the site to continue the tradition.
Investors Group is hosting a nationwide virtual fundraising event featuring documentary filmmaker (and co-founder of the Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Fund) Mike Downie and musical guest William Prince from Peguis First Nation. Participants will be invited to design their own shirt to mark the day.
There are events in Europe, Japan and the United States.
Orange Shirt Day is a global phenomenon.
If you cannot participate in an event, I encourage you to take some time to reflect on how residential schools impact your life.
Think about how you would feel if your children were forcibly removed without your consent.
Think about how they would feel being in a foreign, unwelcoming and often-violent place where starvation and disease was rampant; half your day was spent performing labour and the other half memorizing a religion you knew nothing about.
Think about the parents left behind and what communities would look like with no children. Think about how families would function when the children returned home — if they did at all — and told their moms and dads that they were taught that they were savages. Think about how this all led to cycles of violence, addiction and trauma.
Think about how non-Indigenous peoples benefited incredibly from what the schools did and how overwhelming trauma and lasting shame in Indigenous families justified Canadian stereotypes and beliefs of Indigenous inferiority. Think about how Canadian governments were able to justify the theft of land and instilled policies and practices that led to over-policing, over-incarceration and rampant poverty in Indigenous communities.
Think about how, as the residential school era ended in 1996, there were already tens of thousands of Indigenous children placed into provincial child-welfare systems, and how there are more Indigenous children forcibly removed from their families today than during the time the schools operated.
Think about all of this and how putting on an orange shirt unites us all in a commitment to ensure this devastating legacy ends. It’s a small gesture but a big step into a shared future.
Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.
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