Orange Shirt Day sheds light on dark history of Canada’s residential schools

Students of School District 27 hold up signs during Orange Shirt Day outside of the South Cariboo Recreation Centre in 100 Mile House. Brendan Kyle Jure photo.
Seabird Island Community School’s language curriculum developer Dianna Kay said at this year’s Orange Shirt Day, teachers were given resources to support student learning, plus given a professional development on the Project of Hearts. “We focus on “thriving” and becoming the best people we possibly can, as first, second and some third generation “thrivers”, we encouraged the children to be kind to themselves, to others and to their environment,” she told the Observer via email. (Submitted/Dianna Kay)
Alison Green, Tina Donald, Chief Shelly Loring, Charli Fortier and Angie Rainer play drums and sing a song for lonely hearts at the Orange Shirt Day ceremony. Beth Audet photo. Alison Green, Tina Donald, Chief Shelly Loring, Charli Fortier and Angie Rainer play drums and sing a song for lonely hearts at the Orange Shirt Day ceremony. Beth Audet photo.
Students heard songs and stories from leaders of local Indigenous groups to commemorate orange Shirt Day Friday morning. Dustin Godfrey/Abbotsford News
Nathan Wilson singing the Coast Salish anthem during the opening of the Orange Shirt Day assembly at Chalmers Elementary. (Grace Kennedy photo)
Orange shirt day was sparked from Phyllis Webstad’s account of having her sparkly new orange shirt taken away on her first day of St. Joseph Mission resdiential school. Since then, Orange Shirt Day has become a way to keep the discusion going on all aspects of residential schools. Thy can be purchased at Big Wheel Burger for $20. (File photo)
Grade 10 Reynolds students Abby Busby and Holly Sparks write the names of residential schools onto arm bands as part of a bigger project to learn more about Canada’s past ahead of Orange Shirt Day. Travis Paterson/News Staff

Clad in orange T-shirts, students across the country will spend their Mondays learning about the intergenerational harm done to children at Canada’s residential schools.

Sept. 30 marks the seventh annual Orange Shirt Day, started by Phyllis Webstad, a residential school survivor and Stswecem’c Xgat’tem from Williams Lake. The national day of remembrance refers to one of her first memories at St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School in B.C.’s central Interior in the 1970s, when staff took away her orange shirt, bought especially for school, when she was six years old.

“The colour orange has always reminded me of that [incident] and how my feelings didn’t matter, how no one cared and how I felt like I was worth nothing,” Webstad writes on the Orange Shirt Day website. “All of us little children were crying and no one cared.”

Her story has inspired many across the country and around the world to talk about the realities of residential schools and the wider historical marginalization of Indigenous peoples.

Thousands of First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were removed from their homes and forced to attend residential schools. The last one closed in 1996.

WATCH: B.C. woman behind Orange Shirt Day pens new book for teachers

Webstad spends her time sharing her story and her beliefs about reconciliation with young people, including at an elementary school in B.C.’s Fraser Valley earlier this month.

“The elementary (schools) are the hardest,” she told the Agassiz-Harrison Observer. “I have to really watch what I say with the younger ones. With the older ones, I can tell them more, but with the younger ones, it’s really just surface stuff to introduce the topic.”

READ MORE: Webstad’s Orange Shirt story helps lead the way for truth and reconciliation

This year’s Orange Shirt Day will also celebrate Bill C-369, a federal bill awaiting a second vote in the Senate to make Sept. 30 the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. If passed, the last day of September will be a statutory holiday.

“It’s the truth of the history of Canada,” Webstad said of residential schools. “It’s not just First Nation history, this is Canadian history. And Canadians that live in this country need to be aware of this dark past.”

– with files from Grace Kennedy


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