By Jenn Watt
Phyllis Webstad was six years old when she first attended St. Joseph’s residential school in Williams Lake B.C. Excited for her first day, she proudly wore a new shiny orange shirt with string laced up the front. But when she got there she found out that students weren’t allowed to wear their clothes from home.
School staff cut her hair and took away her clothes – including her new shirt which she never saw again. “All of us little children were crying and no one cared,” she said of that time.
Webstad’s story is common of survivors of residential schools in Canada. Murray Crowe told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that his clothes “were taken and burned at the school” he attended in Ontario. Martin Nicholas of Manitoba remembers being stripped of his buckskin jacket beaded with fringes that his mother had made for him. Lorna Morgan had moccasins made by her grandmother taken away at a Presbyterian school in Kenora. They were thrown in the garbage.
This act of taking away a child’s cherished clothing – often an item that connected them to their family home or heritage – was often the first of many indignities or abuses brought upon Indigenous youth who attended these schools.
And it is the symbol of the orange shirt taken from Webstad that led to the creation of Orange Shirt Day in 2013 which is observed every year on Sept. 30. At local schools students wear orange in acknowledgement of children who were taken from their families to attend residential schools.
The day provides an opportunity for teachers to offer age-appropriate lessons about this nation’s past as well as contemporary issues of racism and discrimination.
We could all benefit from participating in Orange Shirt Day.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission documented the stories of thousands of survivors of residential schools over the course of six years.
For more than 100 years the government took children from their families “not to educate them but primarily to break their link to their culture and identity,” the TRC report states. This was done systematically and successively with at least 150,000 First Nation, Métis, and Inuit children attending the schools many of them subjected to abuse. The first schools were established in the 1880s. The last school closed in the late 1990s.
Our participation in Orange Shirt Day can mean learning more about the legacy of residential schools – which may no longer be operational but continue to haunt the lives of thousands of people today – and create new respectful relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada. And that includes asking our members of Parliament to do better when it comes to their commitments to Indigenous communities.
Providing safe drinking water, adequate schools, reforming the justice system, and following recommendations from the National Inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls would be a good start.