Orange Shirt Day has become a national movement in Canada that invites Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to come together in the spirit of hope and reconciliation to honour former residential school students, their families and communities.
On September 30th every year, Orange Shirt Day is a moment to pause and consider the impacts of the policies and actions of the Government of Canada and the churches that operated the schools.
Orange Shirt Day began in Williams Lake, BC in 2013 at the St. Joseph Mission residential school commemoration event at which survivor Phyllis Webstad told the story of her shiny new orange shirt taken away from her on her first day of school at the Mission.
Orange Shirt Day occurs in early Fall because this is the time of year when children were removed from their families and forced to attend residential schools. The day inspires Canadians to take part in anti-racism and anti-bullying initiatives at school and work.
Residential schools were a network of boarding schools for Indigenous peoples, funded by the Canadian government's Department of Indian Affairs and operated and administered by Christian churches.
Using the familiar idea of the school system, rather than education, the purpose of the residential school network was a systemic effort to remove Indigenous children from the influence of their own culture and to force assimilation into the dominant Canadian culture.
Over the course of the system's more than hundred-year existence, about 30 percent of Indigenous children (around 150,000) were placed in residential schools nationally. During the residential school era it is estimated that 6,000 children died while attending these schools. There are approximately 80,000 survivors of these schools alive today.
Indian residential schools operated across Canada between 1831 and 1996. The earliest recognized and longest running residential school was the Mohawk Institute in Brantford, Ontario (1831–1962). The last federally run residential school to close was Gordon’s School in Punnichy, Saskatchewan, which closed in 1996.
It wasn't until the release in 2015 of the report of Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and its 94 calls for action for reconciliation that the details of this brutal and horrifying part of Canada’s history began to be recognized by Canadians. The TRC report concluded that the residential school system amounted to cultural genocide.
Orange Shirt Day focuses our attention on this shameful historical legacy, but perhaps even more importantly, it offers an opportunity to celebrate the resilience and bravery of the survivors and their families. By telling their stories and offering the generosity of a path to reconciliation, a better future is offered for all Canadians.