Earlier this summer, Parliament unanimously passed legislation to make Sept. 30 a federal statutory holiday called the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

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This article was published 13/9/2021 (256 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Opinion

Earlier this summer, Parliament unanimously passed legislation to make Sept. 30 a federal statutory holiday called the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

The day has been observed nationally as Orange Shirt Day since 2013. It was born from an event at the site of the former St. Joseph Mission Residential School in Williams Lake, B.C., in May 2013, when former student Phyllis (Jack) Webstad shared her story of her first day at residential school in 1973. She recalled the orange shirt her grandmother had bought for her first day, which was stripped from her tiny body and replaced with a uniform.

"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. All of us little children were crying, and no one cared," Webstad said, as quoted on the Orange Shirt Society’s webpage states.

Since Webstad shared her story, the orange shirt has become a nationally recognized symbol for Indigenous children who were sent to residential schools. It represents the stolen kids who came out forever changed and those who never made it home. As the discoveries of unmarked graves of Indigenous children at former residential school sites across Canada continue to be uncovered, the colour orange has become a symbol of our grief. The colour is a way for us to mourn and express feelings that are too sorrowful for words about Canada’s ugly and barbaric legacy of racism, and stand in solidarity in the spirit of healing and reconciliation.

I dress my kids in orange shirts on Sept. 30 in honour of my late nana, Annie (Prince) Cook, who was a residential school survivor. We wear our shirts to recognize all of the children who were taken from their homes and forced into these schools, and for the mothers and fathers who were robbed of their children. The meaning of the orange shirt and this movement has become a very important way to connect with a woman and a culture I don’t know in any explainable way but feel so deeply connected to.

Even though she has been dead for many years, this symbol is a way for me to show my nana and everyone else that she mattered. It’s a way to show that — even though the Elkhorn Residential School took her in as a child and turned her out as a self-loathing shell of her former self, with scars so deep in her soul they infected every aspect of her life and her children’s lives — she was not inferior.

I don’t think she ever knew that.

She died before society recognized and acknowledged the horrible trauma she and others endured at the hands of the residential school system. She never got to see that she actually mattered in any larger sense.

I become emotional when I think of how it would make her feel to be seen and have her experience recognized, not only by her family, but by Canada as a whole, and her trauma validated. Earlier this year, shortly after the remains of 215 Indigenous children were found in unmarked graves at the site of a former residential school on the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in Kamloops, B.C., the Winnipeg Jets had a moment of silence in honour of the lost children.

Before the game, Don Amero sang a sombre but powerful rendition of O Canada, as elder Wally Swain and his wife, Karen, stood behind him. Wally carried tobacco and an eagle feather, and Karen held a pair of tiny moccasins.

I remember watching this tribute on my TV with big, hot tears streaming down my face. It was one of those moments that hit me in such a profound way. A flood of emotions boiled inside of me — grief and sorrow coupled with a sense of awe. "They see you," I thought. "They finally see you."

"They" being society, not the Winnipeg Jets, who are on their own journey in truth and reconciliation.

It’s powerful to see so many people wear orange shirts and show solidarity and support for the children who had been forgotten and unseen for so long. I believe many of us are embarking on our own journeys of reconciliation, listening and learning and allowing ourselves and our perceptions to be changed by the things we learn.

Every day is a national day for truth and reconciliation.

If you’re looking for an orange shirt to wear on Sept. 30, consider buying from an Indigenous-owned business or an official Orange Shirt Day partner that is donating proceeds to residential school survivors.

shelley.cook@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @ShelleyAcook

 

Shelley Cook

Shelley Cook
Columnist, Manager of Reader Bridge project

Shelley Cook is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press and manages the paper's Reader Bridge project, which seeks to expand coverage of underserved communities.